Turkey factory or heritage turkey farm? What's the difference?
Let's compare two turkey farms; one is a modern factory farm and the other one is an old fashioned farm that raises turkeys the way they were intended to be raised.
For sake of the comparison, the first model we are going to look at is Frank Reese's Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. This is the ideal, the standard in raising healthy, free range, good tasting turkeys that still know how to fly and reproduce the way nature intended.
The "Reese's Ranch" is a real farm and its website is full of good educational material.
You are also invited to read Frank's own account of his turkeys (I Am the Last Poultry Farmer) versus industrial turkeys in Jonathan Foer's book, "Eating Animals".
The second model is the turkey CAFO or turkey factory where those delicious looking but tasteless Butterballs come from among others.
We will look at each one in a point by point comparison but first let's understand the word "heritage".
A heritage turkey or chicken or goose or whatever is a bird that has not been genetically manipulated to be something different than it was originally, meaning before the mid-20th century.
With respect to turkeys, "heritage" means they are raised in a natural range-based environment, they reproduce by natural mating and have fertility rates between 70% and 80%, and they have a long productive outdoor lifespan.
Christina Allen's book, pictured above, is the true story of a young heritage poult's journey to adulthood. He probably doesn't know that he is an endangered species so let's hope he lives a long happy reproductive life. Click on the book's image to go to Amazon.com and look it over and buy it. Speaking of reproduction...
Breeding hens are productive for 5 - 7 years and toms from 3-5 years. Furthermore their heritage genetics allow them to withstand the weather conditions of being raised outdoors. Heritage turkeys have a slow growth rate hitting their marketable weight in about 28 weeks, pretty much the same as the birds of the mid-20th century.
By comparison, industrial turkey factory birds do not qualify as "heritage" by any measure. They are so genetically distant from a heritage bird that they barely deserve to be called turkeys.
They were engineered to produce huge white-meat breasts; they cannot walk normally much less fly; they cannot reproduce at all except through artificial insemination; and they are weak.
A few days in the outdoors and they would probably all die off. Cold weather, ice, snow, or high summer heat would be fatal.
In fact turkey farm birds never see the outdoors, never see the sun, have no pasture in which to roam, they are packed in cages body to body and can't ever escape their own waste.
Pasture raised turkeys at Frank Reese's ranch are healthy and whole, never mutilated, and never injected with growth hormones or antibiotics or vaccinations.
They have naturally strong immune systems and are free to exercise all day. At the industrial turkey factory the birds not only have their toe nails cut off but part of their toes as well, they have their beaks clipped off and often their wings.
Their immune systems are destroyed due to the filth and diseased living conditions so massive doses of antibiotics is all that is keeping them alive.
Because time is money, growth hormones are administered so they will grow fast and grow fat so they can be slaughtered while still adolescents, typically in 42 days. Compare that to 28 months at a heritage pasture operation like Frank Reese's.
At Frank's poultry ranch, the birds are cared for with respect and treated humanely all the way through transport and slaughter.
Baby turkeys are never shipped through the mail, they are never transported if it is too hot or cold, they are never jam packed into the trucks, movement is done at night so as to minimize stress, never carried on or off the trucks by their feet, they are stunned before slaughter and the pace is slow, one-at-a-time slaughter by hand, not machine.
At the industrial turkey factory, birds are handled extremely rough, being thrown into cages for transport, no thought given to weather conditions during transport, they are hung upright while still alive and dragged through an electrical bath that often doesn't knock them out.
Cruel treatment of the birds by unskilled, desensitized, frustrated, low paid workers is the norm as will be seen in the videos below. Stress levels are off the charts at every step of life in the turkey factory which does affect the quality of the meat.
While we are at it, here is a very good book on raising turkeys, available from Amazon.com. If you are a compassionate, caring person, willing to learn how to properly raise turkeys, then start by reading the book and studying the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch website referenced above.
Where to buy Natural, Organic, Heritage Turkeys
It is highly likely that outlets in one's local area for organic, heritage turkeys will be scarce to non-existent. Typical supermarket birds are straight from the turkey factory.
Fortunately there are quite a few online sellers that can be found with a few clicks in the old search box; just enter "heritage turkey farms" and away you go. Normally, you can enter you order online and receive your heritage bird flash frozen and delivered to your door.
We automatically link turkeys with Thanksgiving but it doesn't have to be that way. Heritage turkeys are healthy and should be for anytime, any season. That being said, it does appear that many of the online sellers only offer their turkeys during the Thanksgiving season but a few year-round sellers were easily found.
If you are a bodybuilder (or not), check out Eat To Grow by clicking the link below. They offer a variety of high quality meats, in addition to turkey, with a protein content ideally suited to the serious bodybuilder.
Although none of their products contain antibiotics, steroids, or hormones, most are not certified organic. "All Natural" is the key phrase here meaning the chicken, turkey and bison are mostly raised solely on vegetable or forage diets. They are planning to offer truly "Certified Organic" soon, so check back!
Since a video is worth a million words, below is one from Farm sanctuary taken undercover inside a factory farm turkey breeding facility.
Here is one more video titled Butterball's House of Horrors: Cruelty to Turkeys, taken by PETA undercover investigators.
Speaking of which, heritage turkeys are reportedly making a comeback much to the chagrin of the turkey factory operators. The last few Thanksgiving seasons had numerous stories about heritage turkeys in such media outlets as the Wall St. Journal, CNBC, Fox News and many independent web blogs.
The November 23rd issue of the Wall Street Journal featured Frank Reese's Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, discussed above, and Bill Niman's heritage flock in Bolinas California. According to the article, Niman purchased 225 heritage poults from Frank Reese in 2007 and drove them almost non-stop from Kansas to California in the backseat of his Ford Fusion.
Another heritage turkey farmer getting big press during the 2011 Thanksgiving season was Sandy Lerner, now owner of Ayrshire Farm just west of Middleburg, VA.
Ms. Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems, is making a big name for herself in the world of organic, humanely raised heritage poultry and livestock.
The really good news is that a census conducted by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy shows that between 1997 and 2006, the number of heritage turkeys raised for breeding grew by 700%. It would be interesting to see how much the heritage flocks have increased in the years since then.
As the flocks increase and the public appetite for a good tasting, healthy turkey grows, and the retail price comes down, perhaps the turkey factory will someday be nothing but an unpleasant memory. We can hope.
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Go to the CAFO introduction page
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