Owners of a 25-acre farm in Westport, Mass., the Battles are among a small but growing number of farmers raising breeds of turkey with bloodlines that date back centuries yet are quite different — in size, taste and price — from the vast majority of birds sold at today's supermarkets.
Known as "heritage" turkeys, their survival may well hinge on Americans' willingness to create a market for them by putting them on their Thanksgiving tables.
"These are breeds that in order to keep them from becoming extinct, farmers have to raise them and people have to be willing to try them," said Sherri Battles, 44, as her husband placed a feed bucket in front of a gobbling gang of Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Chocolate and other heritage turkeys on a recent November day.
Domesticated breeds such as these were consumed for generations, but by the 1960s they began to be pushed aside in favor of the Broad Breasted White, a commercial breed developed to yield a meatier breast.
The Broad Breasted White reaches maturity in half the time as older breeds, making it cheaper to raise, cheaper to sell and creating lucrative markets for deli meat, ground turkey and other byproducts.
Few major supermarket chains sell heritage turkeys, so few Americans have actually tasted them. Those who have generally note the birds have more dark meat and a flavor distinct from commercial turkeys.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization devoted to preserving historic breeds of farm animals, defines a heritage turkey as one that grows slower, lives longer and — perhaps most importantly — can mate on its own without human intervention, something the mass-produced turkey can no longer do. The ability to reproduce naturally is seen as vital to preserving the genetic diversity of the species and would be especially critical if the commercial turkey supply was ever ravaged by disease.
The ALBC conducted the first census of heritage turkeys in 1997 and could find only about 1,300 breeding birds (turkeys kept by farmers for breeding and not sold for meat) in the U.S., said Jennifer Kendall, the group's marketing and communications manager.