On a thousand acres near Ellensburg, Wash., Greg and Laurie Newhall raise cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and — as of this year — turkeys. This place, Windy N Ranch, is a free-range pasture paradise. And the turkeys here aren’t your average supermarket-variety birds, but a heritage breed called Black Spanish, one of 11 breeds (including Bourbon Red, Narragansett and White Holland) that the American Livestock Breeds Association is working to protect from extinction.
The Newhalls are dedicated to providing a healthy environment and good care for their animals. “I want to do the best job we can in terms of husbandry, as well as raising a simple food that doesn’t have commercial contaminants,” says Greg, who before becoming a rancher and farmer was a builder and developer.
We talked with Greg about his decision to raise heritage turkeys, and why you won’t find his birds in the frozen-food aisle.
Q: Why did you start raising heritage birds?
A: So much of commercial turkey breeding today is focused on maximizing protein production. Back when our society was more rural, qualities like flavor were far more valued. As farmers, we prefer that focus, and we want to promote some of the more flavorful, less common traditional breeds, so that we don’t lose contact with our American roots. By raising birds that have substantially diminished in number, we help keep those breeds going. And when you buy that kind of bird for your holiday meals, you help sustain them, too.
Q: What’s the difference between a typical grocery-store turkey and a heritage turkey?
A: When you buy a pasture-raised heritage turkey, you’re buying a bird that has been humanely raised. You get a stronger, more complex turkey flavor as opposed to the bland taste one gets with a commercial turkey. It’s akin to tasting a real vine-ripened tomato versus tomatoes grown more for shipping than for eating.
Q: What about the cost difference?
A: Raising healthy birds humanely and responsibly does cost more. The conventional, broad-breasted birds in the freezer section are much less expensive, but they are much less of a bird. They’re bred almost exclusively for breast meat. They can’t reproduce naturally; they’re artificially inseminated. They have difficulty walking and moving because they’re designed for such rapid growth.
In the claustrophobic operations where 50,000 or 100,000 birds are raised at a time, the birds are jammed into barns that have to have the air circulated because of the ammonia stench. It is so strong that if it weren’t removed with huge fans, it would kill the animals.
Q: How much longer do heritage turkeys take to grow than industrially raised turkeys?
A: Heritage turkeys grow in 25 to 28 weeks versus commercial varieties that mature in 14 to 18 weeks.
Q: You slaughter and process your own turkeys right on the ranch premises. Why?
A: We can have people pick up a bird hours after it’s processed. They know that animal has been treated well its whole life and hasn’t been through some giant factory or injected with anything. Processing is not a happy situation for any of us, but for the turkeys, being processed here on the ranch, where they’ve been since they were two-day-old chicks, is much more humane and less stressful than being thrown into a truck and hauled a couple hundred miles to be processed in a commercial facility.
Q: Why do you think more consumers are seeking them out these days?
A: Buying a pasture-raised turkey from a small family farm feels good, and supports a way of farming I think more people are starting to care about. It’s better for people, for the environment, and for the birds, too.
Heritage vs. Factory-Farmed Turkeys
- Pasture-raised heritage turkeys are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed turkeys raised in factory farms. They are also lower in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
- Pasture-raised heritage turkeys do not require the antibiotics and hormones necessary to raise turkeys under stressed, dirty, overcrowded conditions, keeping the meat cleaner and safer for you.
- Because factory-farmed turkeys tend to be dry and tasteless, they’re often injected with saline solution, vegetable oils and additives to enhance their taste — and you’re stuck paying for the extra weight.
- Turkeys processed by the farmer — as opposed to large processing facilities — are much less likely to be exposed to and contaminated with harmful bacteria.
- Turkeys, in general, are a great source of protein. They also contain high levels of vitamin B6, immune-boosting selenium and zinc, and energy-supporting phosphorous.
- Before cooking a turkey, remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity. Wash the turkey inside and out with cold water.
- Always wash your hands, utensils and cutting boards with warm, soapy water after handling raw turkey.
- If you do use a frozen turkey, never thaw it at room temperature. Instead, thaw it 24 hours for each 5 pounds in its original wrapper in the refrigerator. Or, place it wrapped in the sink, cover with cold water — and remember to keep refreshing the water! — and thaw 30 minutes per pound.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- To find heritage turkeys in your area, search www.localharvest.org and www.heritageturkeyfoundation.org. Pasture-raised turkeys (and other pasture-raised meats) can be found through www.eatwild.com. Whole Foods carries heritage birds, as do other natural food markets.
- If you want a pasture-raised heritage turkey, don’t delay. Many farmers sell out months in advance of Thanksgiving. If you’re thinking about purchasing a turkey directly from a farm, don’t hesitate to call the farmer and ask questions.
- Put fresh turkey in the refrigerator immediately and cook it within one to two days. If you do buy a frozen turkey, it can be frozen for up to a year.
- Once cooked, tturkey, stuffing and gravy can be frozen. Eat within one month.
Quick and Easy
Asian Turkey Slaw: Mix shredded turkey into your favorite slaw mix. Toss with tahini dressing and sesame vinaigrette, then add green onions and toasted slivered almonds for crunch.
Turkey Avocado Wrap: On a sprouted-grain wrap, spread cranberry mustard spread (equal parts Dijon mustard and cranberry sauce) or cranberry Thai chili spread (one part Thai chili sauce to three parts cranberry sauce). Add shredded Napa cabbage, sliced avocado (or try thin slices of cucumber with the Thai chili sauce), shredded turkey meat, and thinly sliced strips of red bell pepper.
Roll up the wrap, and cut it in half diagonally.
Turkey Chili: Mix up your favorite chili. In the last five minutes of cooking or reheating, toss in a hearty helping of chopped cooked turkey meat. Top with a dollop of tangy Greek yogurt and chopped green onion. Add a flourish of cayenne or red chili pepper for extra spice, and some fresh cilantro for color and scent.
Cubed Turkey on Salads: Top salads with leftover turkey and add your favorite seasonal ingredients, such as diced pear or apple, dried cranberries and toasted pecans. Bonus: Use up leftover cranberry sauce by making it into a quick vinaigrette: add 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar to ¼ cup cranberry sauce, whisk in ¼ cup olive oil, then add salt and black pepper to taste.
Karen Olson is a Minneapolis writer and a regular contributor to Experience Life.