Heritage Breed Turkeys: Harvesting Red Bourbon Turkeys at Stone Barns

by Tejal Rao
Tejal Rao
November 2007

As a general rule, chefs aren’t into cooking turkeys and farmers are pretty indifferent about raising them. But at Stone Barns in Westchester County, New York the Saturday before Thanksgiving, creative director and chef Dan Barber and livestock manager Craig Haney are lecturing to a group of visitors about their turkeys – how they’re raised, what they’re fed, how to cook them (Barber is from The School of Low and Slow), and general turkey talk.

A Red Bourbon Turkey at Blue Hill Farm

The 28-week-old Bourbon Red turkeys at Stone Barns are lean, handsome birds. Haney began breeding them for the same reason he began breeding his Berkshire pigs, he just liked the look of them – chocolate feathers that turn cream at the tail and wings, long legs, and grey-bone beaks. Stubbly wattles and snoods, which wobble cartoonishly from their narrow throats and noses, are pinkish red. They’re elegant feathered paisleys – nothing like the shapeless Jabba the Turkeys we’ve gotten used to, whose feet are eclipsed by their chests. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service recently reported an average turkey weight of close to 30 pounds. These turkeys have a dressed weight between 8 and 16, so they spring effortlessly into the trees to roost for the night.

Turkeys are particularly difficult to raise because they fly, often damaging the roofs of the barns where they roost. But Haney keeps his birds outdoors in the pastures. This means they explore the greenery all over the farm, snacking on bugs, weeds, and seeds they find to supplement their mix of organic grain, and generally enjoy themselves. It also means they attract attention from predators – hawks when they’re young and coyotes throughout their lives. Haney lost a dozen turkeys in a coyote attack earlier this year, a big loss when each bird costs anywhere from $35 to $48 to raise (not including labor) and sells at $6 a pound. Each bird here is already accounted for, snatched up by private buyers and a few restaurants, including Blue Hill. And this year, for the first time, the slaughter will be on-site.

The slaughterhouse at Stone Barns, an old horse barn that’s been converted, will be built by 9 o’ clock tomorrow – ready just in time for what Haney calls “the harvest.” Birds will be cut and hung, washed and plucked, then gutted and packed away. Then a new generation of birds will come in to rotate with the other livestock. This year he bought the chicks and raised them, but as the center expands to have incubators, they’ll be breeding and hatching the Bourbons themselves.

Craig Haney, Livestock Manager at Stone Barns

Heritage turkeys tend to have a slower growth rate, meaning they need to be sold for more than, say, an organic turkey from the farmers market. At NYU’s Farm Bill discussion last week, Barber recounted a conversation he’d had with Haney to the audience as they lamented a 9 hour drive to the slaughterhouse and back. The time driving, the cost of running the truck, paying for off-site slaughter, and other expenditures, make harvesting the animals particularly expensive. Barber proposed, jokingly, as a way to increase profit: “if we got rid of the sheep, who rotate with the chickens on the pasture, we’d have space for more chickens. And then we could get rid of the pigs. And the vegetables. And the greenhouse. You know what? If we turned this into a chicken farm and brought the chickens inside in cages to maximize on space, then we’d be big enough to sell our meat across state lines. Man, then we’d really be in business!”

Economic logic has the power to squish 60 years of American agricultural history into a single minute. There’s a reason monoculture has taken over our landscape – it’s undeniably efficient. But the affects of its logic are disastrous: mass bred animals with antibiotic resistance fed on cheap, nutritionally deficient slurries are unhealthy and tasteless. The philosophy and practice of polyculture gets back to where we started. Heritage breeds, raised the way Stone Barns raises them, are one answer to the problem. There, carefully bred and carefully fed animals rotate on the pastures as they interact with their environment and each other – it’s reflected in the quality and flavor of the meat. They’re more expensive to raise but Bourbons, like most heritage breeds, aren’t just about profit – if they were, Butterball would be breeding them. They’re about preserving diversity, health, flavor, and something a little more abstract. This week turkey isn’t poultry – it’s cultural icon. And like all American icons, we love them most when they’re dead.

Ordering Pasture-Raised Heritage Breed Turkeys
Pre-orders with members begin in September and then open to the public about 2 weeks later – the turkeys are generally sold out by late October. To order Red Bourbons or Broad Breasted Whites from Stone Barns next harvest, check their website or call 914-366-6200