My family has for the last several years opted for a heritage turkey — a Bourbon Red Turkey from Caveny Farm to be specific. While we have found these birds to be much more flavorful and interesting than your typical grocery store gobbler, it also means we pay a significant premium. Today’s New York Times has an article discussing why (Heritage Turkeys Selling Briskly, Even at $10 a Pound, Nov 26).
The bottom line is that both nature and scale matter. On the nature side, heritage breeds grow more slowly. They take 28 weeks to reach maturity. A Broad-Breasted White — the breed of choice for most commercial turkey farms — takes only 14 weeks to be ready for market.
Scale kicks in when on realizes that most heritage breeds are raised in small farms.
It is not clear how many heritage birds are sold each year. A conservative estimate, according to some producers, is 20,000 to 30,000 birds. That is a blip compared with the 273 million broad-breasted turkeys produced annually in the United States (46 million of those are eaten on Thanksgiving).
Just getting a poult (i.e., a baby turkey) costs $9 a pop. Small farms then have to pay for slaughtering and preparing the birds for market. In the words of Frank Reese, a breeder who has championed heritage breeds,
“Our turkeys are very expensive, not because of the turkey but because of the processing and shipping,” he said. “The problem is the infrastructure to support truly honest-to-God sustainable agriculture is not there.”