Poultry from the Past

Land trusts and farmers find new promise in heritage breeds

by Kendall Slee for the Land Trust Alliance’s Saving Land, Winter 2011 (Download PDF of original layout)

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Narragansett and bourbon red turkeys are the odd birds out when it comes to a typical club sandwich or Thanksgiving buffet. But there are reasons aplenty farmer and biologist Chris Entler selected these largely forgotten breeds to populate his three-acre family farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Unlike their heavy-breasted, industrial-bred cousins that usually end up on our plates, the heritage breed turkeys are hardy birds with sharp foraging skills, as well as better breeding and chick-rearing abilities. They require minimal grain supplements and can feed themselves much of the year by foraging in the farm’s fields, Entler explains. “The animals of the past were more self-reliant,” he says. Entler and his wife, Jessica, also have heritage breed hogs, sheep and chickens on their Purple Moon Farm, a stop on Tecumseh Land Trust’s summer farm tour.

Not far away in Northeastern Ohio, a handful of farmers are reintroducing the Buckeye chicken to their flocks. A breeder named Nettie Metcalf developed the breed in the region in the late 1800s. Much of their reintroduction was facilitated by the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on restoring and revitalizing the area’s historic farms and developing farmers’ markets and other business outlets for small farms. Executive Director Darwin Kelsey envisions a niche market for the bird someday. “We happen to think some of the heritage breeds are well-suited to small-scale, highly diversified farm businesses,” he said. While smaller and slower to grow, the birds are well adapted to a free-range lifestyle and their meat “has a better flavor and mouth-feel” than the hybrid chicken that dominates today’s market, he said. If high enough volumes of Buckeye chickens are raised, Kelsey believes they would be a hit in locally focused restaurants.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Aldermere Farm preserve touts its heritage breed of Belted Galloway cattle for their ability to forage, even in winter. The farm has the oldest continually operated herd in the U.S.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) promotes heritage livestock breeds like the Belted Galloway and Buckeye in part to protect a gene pool that has been largely lost due to industrial-scale agribusiness, says Jennifer Kendall, communications manager of the ALBC. “If you had a disease that one of these [industrial-bred] animals was prone to, we would need something to fall back on,” she says. “We are trying to create a market for these animals as food and for sustainable agriculture,” she adds, noting that heritage sheep now weed some California vineyards, and certain heritage goats and cows are also good at keeping areas mowed or weeded.

The ALBC keeps a database of breeders and releases an annual conservation priority list that ranks heritage breeds from “critical” to “recovering.” For more information see http://albc-usa.org.

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