Ark of Taste

Slow Food Russian River’s Heritage Turkey Project

By Slow Food Russian River

The Heritage Turkey Project of Sonoma County, co-sponsored by Slow Food Russian River, just completed its 15th season of connecting youth to a future in agriculture. 

You might first ask ‘what is a heritage turkey’? Nearly all commercially sold turkeys in this country are the same Butterball breed – the Broad Breasted White. They have been selectively bred to mature quickly, for their white feathers (so they appear cleaner when you cook them), and for their huge breasts. These poor birds can’t fly, walk, or even breed naturally. Raised in confinement with no exercise, industrial turkeys have weak immune systems and often require antibiotics.  When they are harvested, their meat is so bland that they are often injected with saline solution and vegetable oil to improve their taste. The global Slow Food movement remains committed to preserving biodiversity, especially through the Ark of Taste project. Many of the varieties raised by youth in the project are boarded on the Ark, including the American BronzeBourbon RedNarragansett, and Royal Palm varieties.

Narragansett Tom “Bubba” from Thode Family Farm
The Narragansett Turkey will be featured in a series of USPS stamps next year of Heritage Breeds.

The project averages between 12 to 16 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) youth each year, growing a total of approximately 200 turkeys. The youth raise our heritage turkeys from 6-7 months from poult to maturity, which is twice the duration for commercial Broad Breasted Whites. Our project leaders, Catherine and Chuck Thode, are themselves active breeders of heritage turkeys. Some of the young farmers are now raising breeding pairs and hatching their own birds. Each project member raises their small flock of birds on their own property and shoulders the responsibility of providing their care and all-organic feed.

During the week and weekend before Thanksgiving, the birds are carefully collected from the youth’s farms and brought to their harvest and transformation. The nearest CDFA-approved facility which can support our unique youth-to-table operation is a six hour round trip. This enables us through the entirety of the project to know which youth raised a particular bird and its variety.

Given uncertainties from the COVID-19 pandemic on how people would be able to gather and with more birds raised this year than ever, we reached out through Slow Food California to Slow Food East Bay, Slow Food South Bay, and Slow Food Santa Cruz. East Bay leader Willow Blish organized and brought 22 turkeys from Sebastopol to Bay Area eaters, whom raved about their flavor. MB from Berkeley said, “It was by far our best turkey we’ve ever had, and it was perfectly sized for our family. We had roast turkey with persimmons and red onions, pasta with a garlic turkey sauce, turkey sandwiches, turkey salad sandwiches and then finally turkey stew! Thanks again for putting this together!  Please let the 4H kids know how much we appreciated it!” South Bay Vice Chair Jessica Campbell and her family enjoyed one of our heritage turkeys for the first time, noting, “The turkey was beautiful, and we ate every part. The liver was the healthiest organ I’ve ever seen in poultry, and the neck made an amazing broth for our leftover turkey soup. We felt so grateful to the family that raised such a fine specimen.

This project continues to bring awareness to Sonoma County and beyond to Northern California communities, our farmers, and our future farmers about the preservation of heritage breeds, sustainable farming, and responsible animal husbandry. The Heritage Turkey Project offers our young growers valuable, hands-on involvement in a viable, real-world market setting, with the proceeds from each sale at $9.50/lb going directly to the youth that raised it. It is truly a labor of love for all involved.

You can read more about the Heritage Turkey Project on Slow Food Russian River’s website at http://www.slowfoodrr.org/projects/heritage-turkeys/ and contact Project Coordinator Catherine Thode at heritageturkeyproject@gmail.com.