Reclaiming The Past

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Fall has finally arrived and soon the holidays will be here.  It’s the time of the year for family and feasts and perhaps no bird more symbolizes the holiday than turkeys.  But do you know much about turkeys?  Is your turkey coming from the freezer of your local chain grocery store?  Do you know there are differences in turkeys?  I didn’t.  I thought a turkey was just a turkey until . . .

Last winter, when I placed my order for chicks, on the spur of the moment, I also ordered turkey poults. I thought it might be fun to provide the main course for holiday dinners for us and a few of our friends. I chose Narragansett turkeys solely based on the picture on the website because they reminded me of the turkeys pictured on my Grandmother’s china from decades ago.  To me, a turkey was a turkey, all destined to end up in the freezer.

Five turkey poults arrived and from the first day, they captured my heart. Unlike the baby chicks, who scattered when I fed them and huddled together, the turkeys approached me and looked at me with inquisitive eyes. Where the chicks were frenetic, the turkeys were calm.

They grew quickly and in a matter of weeks, we allowed them into their outdoor run. They were fine there until one day, Mountain Man said “Hey, your turkeys are on top of the fence.” He, who had only raised meat birds, was surprised by my Narragansett’s ability to fly.

And from that day on, there was no containing them. They free ranged on our farm eating insects and plucking down weeds but they never went far.  When I was outside, they followed me as if I were their leader. If I stopped to take a break, they did too.

I was captivated by these turkeys and I wanted to learn more.

I started doing web searches for Narragansett turkeys and from the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, I learned that Narragansett’s are a heritage breed of turkey and they are now a threatened breed. Narragansetts arrived with the colonists in the 1600s and quickly became an integral part of New England farms. They were easy keepers, required little feed, ate insects and were able to reproduce easily making them an ideal accompaniment to the family farm.

But with the advent of factory farming, they fell out of favor and were replaced by birds whose sole purpose in life was to become food as quickly as possible. Turkeys no longer free ranged farms but instead were raised in captivity. They no longer could reproduce naturally and required human intervention.  Narragansett turkeys started to fade into oblivion.  Recently, with the advent of the localvore movement and homesteading, there been a resurrgence of interest in this heritage breed.

I wondered about other breeds of animals that populated homesteads long ago and I discovered a long list of animals that have fallen out of favor as maximizing food production for masses has become the norm.

And just as Mountain Man is laboring on restoring the old barn, I am going to attempt to restore the animals of the past to our farm. Next spring will find more heritage breeds arriving. Heritage breeds of pigs, sheep and goats once so common on Vermont farms, will be joining us. 

For those of you who are adding chickens, turkeys or other farm animals to your homestead next year, I urge you to consider heritage breeds. No matter where you live, there are heritage breeds suited to your environment. Let’s repopulate our homesteads with the animals who played an important part in our history.

Mountain Man, Mountain Woman, the turkeys and other assorted animals can always be found at