Heritage Turkey Breeds for the Rural American

Heritage turkey breeds make favorable farm fowl.

| November/December 2010

Midget White Tom

A Midget White tom weighs about 13 pounds.

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.  


Status: Threatened 

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. 

Claudia Johnson
12/27/2010 4:38:56 PM

We live in upstate NY and have had our first try with turkeys and we raised Bourbon Reds. Had the first for Christmas dinner. These birds are so personable and friendly, yet guard the yard as well as any goose! so entertaining. Unfortunately, even though I knew they were for the freezer I fell in love with them and we kept a tom and two hens in hopes of new little ones in the spring. The meat was wonderful...no chemical after taste or headache. Cooked it in a "cook-in" bag with bacon tucked under the skin. Divine! and even the drumsticks, which I thought would be tough and stringy cause of all the exercise they had were marvelous. Anxious to try other heritage breeds.

Ruth Bennett
11/26/2010 1:29:58 PM

I have 20 acres north of Casper, WY and would like to start trying to become self sufficient. Between Grit and Mother Earth News, I hope to get and use the information and ideas from the magazines and sites. Thanks a bunch!

Ruth Bennett
11/26/2010 1:29:02 PM

In reference to my previous comment, I live around Casper, WY. What chance do I have in getting and raising any of the Heritage Breed turkeys this far north and west?

Sylvia Horvath
11/19/2010 11:02:09 AM

I enjoyed the article on Heritage turkeys, however I believe there is an error regarding the Beltsville Small White. In the article it state this variety was developed in Beltsville, Massachusetts, however the this research center is located in Beltsville, Maryland. See this link for confirmation: http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=12-00-00-00

10/21/2010 7:58:10 PM

While we don't yet live on a farm, that is what we are aspiring to. I actually found this magazine and website while in my research/planning stage (this stage coincides with trying to sell our house in the city). The heritage breeds almost immediately popped out to catch my attention. It began with the discovery (well, my discovery) of Gulf Coast Sheep, which I found absolutely fascinating. From there, I found the National Breeds Conservancy List, which of course led me to reading up on the Naragansett Turkey. While we have already decided that the first year will mostly be preparation before any large tasks such as livestock (and of course a kitchen garden), heritage turkeys and a few heritage chickens are at the top of our livestock list. In the mean time, I've got lots of research to do yet and hopefully we'll be well on our way by this time next year. I look forward to reading more articles like this one. Deanna

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