rank Reese’s turkeys can fly. In the wild, that’s nothing special, but on a turkey farm, it’s a rare sight to see. Reese’s birds also run, jump, dig holes, roll in the dirt, eat bugs and roost just like turkeys have in America for more than 200 years. His Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Black, White Holland and Bourbon Red turkeys and Plymouth Barred Rock, New Hampshire, Cornish, Silver Laced Wyandotte and Jersey Giant chickens are standard-bred, otherwise known as heritage breed, birds. A fourth-generation kansas farmer, Reese’s grandparents settled in Salina, kansas, right after the Civil War, and he can trace his family’s turkeys’ bloodlines back to 1917. He’s raised turkeys and chickens on range his whole life, the better part of 60 years, first on the family farm in Salina and, later, on his own land in Lindsborg, kansas, at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. “I just enjoyed chickens and turkeys, even as a little kid,” he says. “At a young age, instead of being sent to the milk house or the cow barn, I was sent to the chicken house. Back then, there wasn’t anything other than what they call heritage today – and I hate that word. They’ve been called standard bred since 1873.” By the time Reese was in high school, he was showing birds through the Four-H Club and at the kansas State Fair. “That’s where I began to learn a lot about poultry and how to raise poultry for market, and I was very successful at it,” he says. “When I went to a show, I went to win. But back then we didn’t just raise birds to be pretty or to win shows, they also had to be marketable – [to] be able to produce eggs, to produce meat.” early in his career, Reese met legendary turkey farmer Norman kardash, known to folks in the industry as the Turkey Man, who quickly became his hero and mentor. kardash could trace his turkeys’ genetic lines back to the 19th century and was particularly known for his awardwinning Narragansetts. When kardash passed away in 2003, he left his birds and breeding legacy to Reese.
at home, or have been the focus of farm dinners hosted by chefs Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, and Mario Batali in New York City. Several years ago, Reese’s farm was profiled in writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book about industrial farming and animal welfare, Eating Animals, and in the past three years, filmmakers adapting the book have visited Good Shepherd more than a dozen times. “People have been very good to me,” Reese says of the attention. When he describes his turkeys and chickens, it’s with the pride and protectiveness of a father, but also the respect of a farmer who appreciates not just their beauty and personalities, but also the bounty they bestow. Reese cares deeply about his animals, and part of caring about something involves fear and concern. And every year, he grows more concerned.
All domesticated turkeys are descendents of the Standard Bronze, or “the king,” as Reese describes them, which are native to North and Central America. Feathers on the backs of Bronze toms (male turkeys) and hens (female turkeys) include three bands: white, black and iridescent bronze. Their feathers glisten a brilliant shock of penny copper from their shoulders down their backs. Hens have distinctive lacing, or a white pattern on each feather, covering their breasts. When you imagine a turkey, you’re probably picturing the Bronze. “The Bronze is the genetic basis for all the other varieties of turkeys,” Reese says. “In fact, every domesticated turkey – I don’t care if it’s a Butterball or what it is – its ancestor was the Bronze. It was the first real breakthrough for farmers back in the 1830s, who began to raise and market a domesticated turkey that was reliable. And so it became the king.” From there, varieties like Narragansett, with its silver coloring, black and white frosted wings and golden tail, and Bourbon Red, with its chestnut wings and white tail, were selected and bred for their intricate and beautiful colorings.
once in a while a white one would show up in the breeding, or a black one would show up, and they would keep it and breed it, trying to get more white ones or black ones,” Reese says. “Pretty soon, they had entire flocks.” Although beautiful, the varying color patterns have no effect on the meat – and Reese says if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, it’s “a bunch of hooey.” Instead, he says texture and flavor are determined by how the farmer bred the animal, what he fed the animal and how he treated the animal. “My Bronze turkeys look like they look, taste like they taste and have those nice big round breasts because I’ve selected for that [in breeding], not because they’re Bronzes.” Preserving and protecting heritage breeds is only half of Reese’s work. He’s also passionate about maintaining traditional farming practices – what was once the only way of doing things in the poultry industry but has, in the past 50 years, slowly faded away. Reese describes three essentials to raising standard-bred turkeys: birds are naturally mating, which means farmers don’t have to – and don’t choose to – artificially inseminate hens for reproduction; birds are allowed a natural rate of growth for healthy skeletal and muscle development; and there is longevity, which means that birds not killed for meat will live long lives on the farm and be used for breeding. These tenets also form the mission of the American Poultry Association (APA), which is the only organization that can issue certifications for standard-bred turkeys. Reese has been a member since the 1950s and was the first poultry farmer to be certified by the APA.
he says. “That’s the basis, and even my mission, for selling birds: to save them from extinction and to bring them back to what they originally were meant to be – quality farm animals for eggs and meat.”
In the early 1900s, Standard Bronze and Bourbon Red birds roamed the pastures of farms across the country, foraging for food, exercising their muscles and gaining weight at a natural pace. In the 1920s, enterprising farmers began breeding the Standard Bronze to have broader, meatier breasts and aptly named the new variety Broad Breasted Bronze. Within 20 years, the Broad Breasted Bronze fell out of favor, as its dark pinfeathers were considered unappealing to consumers after plucking. By the early 1960s, a new hybrid emerged, the Broad Breasted White, developed by crossing Broad Breasted Bronze and White Holland turkeys. Broad Breasted Whites are bred to have larger breasts than standard-bred turkeys, and they also mature almost twice as fast, yielding fatter birds – and on industrial farms, fatter profits. Today, Broad Breasted Whites make up 99 percent of the turkeys farmed in America. While it takes Reese about 28 to 32 weeks to raise 18- to 20-pound toms on range, a Broad Breasted White tom raised on an industrial farm lives
“It’s important to me that people who buy my products know that it’s the true, authentic thing,”
“If a farmer had 300 turkeys, which was a lot of turkeys [in the 1800s] for one farmer, every
Reese has a slight country drawl and speaks in a measured and quiet way. You’d never guess the modest kansas farmer and his birds have made multiple appearances on The Martha Stewart Show, teaching Americans about standardbred poultry and how to properly cook it
Inspired Local Food Culture
Published on Oct 30, 2015
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