To say that Heritage Foods USA is not a typical food distributor or broker is quite an understatement. This New York City-based company is the profitable spin-off of a not-for-profit organization, Slow Foods USA, which is dedicated to celebrating regional cuisines and products. The desire to preserve access to superior food ingredients for fine dining led to an interest in helping producers maintain old traditions for raising crops, livestock and poultry and the preservation of some heritage breeds of turkeys.

Patrick Martins is one of the founders of Slow Foods USA and a cofounder of Heritage Foods USA. He is a somewhat outspoken critic of modern animal agriculture and is particularly concerned about the welfare of livestock and poultry raised in confinement systems. Slow Foods originated in Europe when the first McDonald's in Italy was opened at the Spanish Steps of Rome. Martins said that Slow Foods was not an anti-fast food group. Rather than protesting McDonald's, Slow Foods went about promoting the fine cuisine that its members preferred.

Slow Foods USA's stated mission is "celebrating regional cuisines and products," and it does this in a non-confrontational manner, according to Martins. The organization's goal is to provide a supply of meats and poultry from heritage breeds of animals that are raised and fed just as they were decades ago. Connecting fine restaurants and high-end consumers, largely in major urban areas, with small producers, largely in the Midwest, has allowed Heritage Foods USA to make progress in preserving heritage breeds.

The Heritage Turkey Project was Slow Foods USA's first attempt at preservation. This project has succeeded in more than doubling the number of heritage turkeys in the USA and led to the spin-off of Heritage Foods USA in 2004 as a for-profit company.

Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch

The turkeys in the Heritage Turkey Project belong to Frank Reese, Jr., owner of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, located outside of Lindsborg, Kan. Reese is an anesthesiologist, who also is a part-time poultry fancier and breeder. Reese's collection of Bronze, Bourbon Red, White Holland, Black and Narragansett turkeys is the largest in the country. Reese says his flock is the only group of true heritage breeds of turkeys in the USA that numbers over a few dozen individuals, and this year he is raising around 18,000 head.

Reese defines heritage turkeys as birds that can mate naturally with normal fertility, take 24 to 28 weeks to get to market weight, and can live for several years. Martins said that heritage animals also need to be raised as animals used to be raised, and for poultry, that means on range.

Reese began raising Bronze turkeys for shows as a child and can trace the lineage of his Bronze turkeys back to 1917. Through his affiliation with American Poultry Association (APA) and attendance at shows, Reese came to know many of the breeders who shared his passion for turkeys. Over the years, as many of these turkey fanciers retired or died, Reese acquired their flocks. Now, Reese believes that his flocks are the last of their kind.

Selection & Breeding

Next year's breeders, and some exceptional individuals from prior years, who best reflect the standards for their respective breeds are selected out of the flock and are carried over the winter on Reese's 160-acre prairie farm. Eight turkey breeds were first recognized in 1873 by the APA, but over time, only five breeds developed commercial value. Reese's birds are free to roam inside the range houses, where they are fed an all-vegetable diet and get water, or they can forage in fenced pastures. Fences are for the cattle that share some of the fields. Heritage hens of all ages can fly and so can young toms; fences don't contain them.

As Reese separates the breeds in to pens, he clips one wing on each hen to prevent comingling and crossbreeding. Eggs are gathered and set in incubators on his farm starting in mid-February. Kansas weather only allows a two month placement window for ranging birds for early November slaughter. The poults are first raised in batteries, and then are raised in houses with concrete floors with wooden slatted-floor screened-in porches. When the birds are old enough, and the weather is warm enough, they go on range. Reese now has six other Kansas farmers who raise birds on contract with him.

Marketing turkeys in the fall was always a means of paying the feed bill for Reese, but the Heritage Turkey Project gave him the opportunity to accomplish another goal. Livestock genetics text books, according to Reese, say a closed flock can be maintained with two hundred hens. He has five closed flocks, so he needs to maintain at least 1,000 hens. Reese estimates that raising around 22,000 turkeys a year will support all five breeds.

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Teaming with Heritage Foods allowed Reese to reach a nationwide audience. Reese purchases one day of shackle time at Nebraska Turkey Growers. Individually boxed birds are held in a warehouse in Kansas City, Mo., until shipment. Reese expects to ship around 15,000 Grade A birds this year, up from a couple thousand a few years ago.

Started With Customer Base

Martins said, "The secret of the success of the turkey project is that it started with a customer base and then went back to the farm. Most small producers start with the supply and then try and find customers." Slow Foods developed from a network of contacts with chefs, other non-profits, and gourmets with an interest in food that is different from typical grocery store fare. They are interested in sustainable agriculture or animal welfare and have an interest in preserving rare breeds of livestock.

Martins said that success of the project resulted from Reese's work, positive press coverage and help from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. He said, "There were a lot of things that came together at just the perfect time." The Internet and Federal Express have allowed Heritage Foods to connect the producer and the consumer directly. Last year, around 60 percent of Reese's turkeys were sold through Heritage Foods, and the rest were sold regionally to upscale grocers like Whole Foods.

Individual fresh birds for Thanksgiving can be purchased at www.heritagefoodsusa.com. Delivered prices range from $119 for an eight- to 10-pound bird up to $209 for birds over 26 pounds. Reese says his birds sometimes are sold in grocery stores fresh for Thanksgiving for as much as $9 per pound, though $6 per pound is more typical.

Heritage Foods markets more than just turkeys, it markets chickens, geese, ducks, pork, lamb, bison, beef, tuna, salmon and dry goods. "Heritage Foods does around $5 million to $6 million per year and is profitable. Around 70 percent of the business is to restaurants and the remaining 30 percent is mail order," Martins said.

The waterfowl, chickens and non-Thanksgiving turkeys are owned by Reese and raised by him and by contract producers. Ducks, geese and turkeys have a single slaughter date for the most part. Around 200 Plymouth Barred Rock and Dark Cornish chickens are processed every other week These birds are processed at Krehbiels Specialty Meats, Inc., in McPherson, Kan. Krehbiels didn't have poultry slaughter equipment, so Reese went into partnership with Krehbiels and bought the slaughter equipment. Meat from the B-grade Thanksgiving turkeys is processed by Krehbiels into items like ground turkey, turkey ham, sausage and boneless skinless breast meat.

Chefs Are Boss

When asked about the ingredients for success in this venture, Martins said, "By far and away the most important thing is that chefs at a restaurant will do anything, and will even pay a lot to get what they want. But the product better come like they ask. Chefs want no excuses. It takes the farmer, Heritage Foods and the distributors and shippers working together to accomplish the objective of satisfying the chef." Martins said that the supply of the heritage animals and the people who can raise them in the traditional ways will limit the growth of the market, not demand.

He offered some advice to any producer who would like to go the heritage farming route: "You can't expect charity because you are a small farm. Absolutely the same business practices used by the big guys need to be used by the little guys." Martins said that it takes good public relations and a good e-mail list to get started with a grass-roots, word-of-mouth marketing campaign. "All forms of media need to be used. You have to be just as aggressive with your marketing as McDonald's," Martins said.

Frank Reese has gone from poultry fancier to preservationist to turkey entrepreneur over the last few decades. If the business end of his turkey breeds preservation effort continues to grow, then it will reach a sustainable level. He worries what would become of these breeds when he is gone, but the investments he has made to turn his hobby into a business, perhaps, will insure that his flocks will be gobbling on the prairie, even without him.