Heritage Turkey Breeds for the Rural American
Heritage turkey breeds make favorable farm fowl.
The Narragansett toms’ color pattern includes black, gray, tan and white.
courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
As Thanksgiving approaches, the image of a tasty tom turkey with all the trimmings comes to mind. But the turkey on the average American’s table today is more an industrial product than anything our ancestors ever would have imagined eating. In fact, today’s modern mass-market turkey has been so intensely selected to efficiently produce breast meat that it no longer can mate naturally or produce fertile eggs without artificial intervention.
Historic turkey breeds still exist that retain essential characteristics for survival, reproduction and great taste.
In 2005, to secure the market for historic breeds of turkeys, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defined the term Heritage Turkey. According to this definition, Heritage Turkeys mate naturally, have long, productive outdoor life spans, and have a slow growth rate. The goal of the definition is to preserve the genetics of breeds that may take longer to grow-out, but, ultimately, have a superior flavor and vibrant history.
Heritage turkeys are still perfect for small farms and homesteaders – and if sufficient numbers are raised, the word “turkey,” when used as an adjective, might connote the opposite of its contemporary meaning.
Descended from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkeys brought to North America, the Narragansett is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the variety was developed and became the foundation of the turkey industry in New England. According to early accounts, it was not uncommon to find flocks of 100 to 200 birds. The Narragansett was recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) in 1874, and, by the early 1900s, its numbers had declined. In the past 10 years, interest in the Narragansett has grown as small farmers and poultry enthusiasts strive to recapture the biological fitness, survivability and superior flavor represented by the breed.
The breed’s color pattern contains black, gray, tan and white. The Narragansett’s beak is horn colored, its head is red to bluish-white, and its beard is black. The shanks and feet are salmon colored. The standard weight for young hens is 14 pounds and for young toms is 23 pounds. Narragansetts have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production and excellent meat qualities. As the market niche for heritage turkeys continues to grow, this breed’s numbers will continue to improve.
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