It’s Thanksgiving so it is time to revisit the question of why heritage birds cost so much more than your standard supermarket bird. This year’s lesson in turkey economics comes from The Atlantic with a post by Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman of Niman Ranch fame (Heritage Turkeys: Worth the Cost?, Nov 18). Like good locavores, they emphasize that the industrial methods of factory farms result in birds that are in a sense under-priced. Yes, they are cheap on the supermarket shelf, but that doesn’t reflect the full cost they impose on the environment.
But the reason heritage cost so much is largely operational.
On the flip side, it’s simply more expensive to raise turkeys naturally, especially heritage birds. The modern turkey (the Broad-Breasted White) has been selected generation after generation for two main traits: white meat and fast growth. The oversized breasts of the Broad-Breasted White render it incapable of flight or natural mating. As it matures, it has difficulty walking. The heritage turkey, on the other hand, is closely related to its wild ancestors; it is heartier, healthier, and capable of natural mating, running, and flying. This enables farms raising heritage turkeys to raise them without drugs. It also makes them more work to raise.
Like their wild cousins, heritage birds grow at a pace set by nature. Heritage turkeys typically take almost twice as much time to reach maturity as Broad-Breasted Whites. From a farming standpoint, the growth rate has enormous economic consequences. Double the maturation time means double the cost for feed, labor, and overhead (like maintenance of buildings and waterlines). It also means a lost opportunity to raise more turkeys and that each animal has more opportunities to get sick, be injured, or die prematurely. These differences result in much of the price gap.
So we can blame Little’s Law! Heritage turkeys take twice as long so the same inventory means lower throughput. As long as costs are drive by inventory (if the birds are there, you gotta feed them), that means traditional breeds will cost a lot more.