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Preserving Livestock With Your Purchases

Heritage breed turkeysThis post was originally published in Just Roots' November newsletter.

Heritage Breed Turkeys

If you want to help preserve threatened breeds of livestock, eat them. That statement is one that I have found to be the most challenging for folks to accept when they come to listen to my “turkey talk.” I had the opportunity to showcase a few of my rare-breed heritage turkeys at the Just Roots Fall Farm Festival on October 26, at the Greenfield Community Farm. Often times we make purchases based on what we know or what we have been told. Many people are making the choice to buy locally and that includes where they get their holiday meat, be it lamb, pork, turkey, etc. Even when buying locally, there are still some hard choices to make which could include the type of animal, the manner in which the animal is cared for or is killed, what the animal eats, the lifestyle the animal is afforded and so on. All of these things and more factor into how we decide what will adorn our holiday table, or at least in my opinion they should.

One thing to consider is the fact that livestock can and do go extinct. We don’t often think of a breed of turkey, pig, horse, cow, or sheep ceasing to walk the land but without proper management, stewardship and marketability, they do and they will. I expanded upon my childhood roots of raising my own meat (conventionally) to raise heritage breeds of pigs, turkeys and chickens in their natural state. I focus on rare-breeds because frankly, they need our help. Our market is overpowered by industrial agriculture which promotes fast growth, unrealistic size and unreasonably cheap price points to consumers. They have been wildly successful at doing this for decades. The new norm: a 30 pound butterball turkey for $3.29/lb, Pork, the “new white meat” (pork should be red in color, if raised with exercise and a diverse diet) at $3.69/lb and chicken at an all time low of $1.69/lb and that doesn’t include the buy 1 get 2 free option. In as little as two generations, our palates have dulled, our thinking has altered, our buying and eating habits have changed. I believe we can change again, return to our forefathers’ meats, when animals were raised on the land, not indoors, ate forage, grains, and vegetables, not GMO corn, and tasted distinctive and delicious, not bland.

Some of the best compliments I receive about my heritage meat come from folks who close their eyes when telling me about the flavor of the meat. In response to our smoked canadian bacon from Hereford hogs, one customer said, “I knew intellectually that the meat would taste differently, but I didn’t know just how much. It reminded me of my childhood.” Another, speaking about eating a heritage Black breed turkey leg said, “this is what our ancestors would have tasted on Thanksgiving.”

But why does it cost so much more? This is a question I do not balk at. I think about this question as an opportunity to educate the customer. The cost of raising an animal is something most people know little about, so the price tag at the grocery store becomes the norm, the expectation. But the price tag at the grocery store does little to reflect reality, at least not from a sustainable agriculture or food justice standpoint—where farmers receive fair wages and animals are raised humanely. Answering the question “why does it cost more” begins with education. Once people understand the cost of raising an animal, they can better understand the price tag. Here is an example:

Broad-Breasted Turkey

Each of these turkeys came to be through artificial insemination. You must be able to breed on you own in order to be deemed a breed. Due to the large breast size of these birds (driven by market demand), they are not able to breed naturally and so are artificially inseminated to continue to produce. A broad-breasted turkey is not a breed at all, rather a strain. They cost less from the hatchery because the wide-spread market demand for them. They take only four months to raise to “market weight.” They grow larger, faster. They have a larger ratio of white meat to dark meat as a result of being raised in confinement. An average turkey will consume 50 pounds of grain so we can assume that the cost of the bird, feed and slaughter will yield a outlay of $30 per bird from the farmer. At an average price of $3.79/lb, a hen weighing 15 lbs, the cost of the bird to the consumer is $56.85 and the farmer nets $26.85.

Heritage Breed Turkey 

Heritage breeds breed on their own. They cost more (double) from the hatchery since they are harder to produce and there are few farms breeding them. A heritage breed turkey takes eight months to get to market weight—twice as long as the broad-breasted strain. Having maintained a strong foraging instinct, heritage breeds are raised on pasture and offered supplemental grain. Foraging results in a larger ratio of dark meat to light meat. The average hen will weigh 11 - 12 lbs and the average Tom 16 - 18 lbs. With the cost of the bird, feed and slaughter we can assume an outlay of $60 per bird from the farmer. Pricing ranges, but usually falls between $6.00 - $8.00/lb. At $6.00, I would make a minimum of $6.00 on an average hen. At $8.00/lb, I would yield the same net profit as the broad-breasted example listed above, but I still would have spent twice as much time doing it. So, if you factor in time, I would need to charge closer to $16.00/lb to actualize the same yield.

I think it is going to take a lot of education and mind-set shifting to convince the average consumer that $16.00/lb is a reasonable price to pay for their holiday meal and yet, given the information above, that price makes sense. Needless to say, I am not getting rich raising rare breed turkeys, but I am making a difference for the breeds and that is what matters most to me.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the challenge to shift our thinking on what we are willing to pay for what we eat based on reality, not perception nor Big Ag market illusions. It also leaves us with the fact that many folks cannot afford to buy fairly priced meat, given the outputs by the farmer. Yet we all deserve to be able to choose to eat healthy, local food don't we?! This is the challenge we at Just Roots think a lot about. Making informed decisions when purchasing meat means considering the future of our livestock populations. In this scenario, for these heritage breeds of turkey (and other rare breeds of livestock) to continue to exist, they need our help. Purchasing them for our family meals increases the market demand and means continued breeding on farms. Some people say vote with your purchases. I say preserve with your purchases. We can all make a difference. When choosing your meat, I encourage you to choose with intention. To learn more about conserving livestock visit the Livestock Conservancy at

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


Jessica Van Steensburg lives in Heath, MA on her farm, WeCanFarm , with her partner Jeff and three kids. They focus on heritage breed livestock production, including hogs, chickens and turkeys, preserving rare-breeds for the family homestead. She also works as a Director for Just Roots in Greenfield.