Earth Notes: Heritage Turkeys

Nov 25, 2020

Turkeys have been an important food staple in the Southwest for centuries. But the native varieties bear little resemblance to the plump turkeys of today.

File photo: Bourbon Red Turkey
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Heritage turkeys, as these early birds are commonly referred to, flew, ran and foraged for their food, mainly insects and grass. They came in a variety of breeds and were often given descriptive names, like Bourbon Reds and Bronzes to showcase their vibrant coloring.

The American Poultry Association defines heritage turkeys as slow growing birds that reproduce naturally. They tend to produce a more balanced amount of white and dark meat which many people say tastes better than factory-raised birds. Those arrived on the American food scene in the 1960’s and revolutionized the way food is produced and stored. The birds were housed in pens in industrial settings, bred artificially, and given large quantities of feed to put meat on in a hurry. It remains the standard practice today.

But heritage turkeys didn’t go anywhere, and they‘ve been experiencing a Renaissance of sorts over the last few years. Some Indigenous farmers and ranchers in northern Arizona are rising to the challenge of rearing these special birds. Louise Sheppard raises Bronze turkeys on Nizhoni Family Farms north of the Hopi village of Hotevilla. She carries on her grandmother’s teachings, letting the birds roam free, mate and lay eggs on their own schedule, and mostly forage for their own food in their first year. Louise also donates their beautiful feathers for tribal ceremonies. She plans to roast one overnight for her family’s Thanksgiving feast.