We hatched out about 225 Narragansett turkey poults at Elmwood Stock Farm this spring, the eggs gathered from our breeding flock. Some of our toms and hens have been with us for six or eight years, yet each year we hold back the best of the best, to bring young stock into our flock. These majestic birds are stately, proud and circumspect—a joy to be associated with. Interestingly, in 1997, there were only six Narragansett breeding pairs known to exist in the United States of America. I suggest their rebound is the epitome of the success of the local food movement.
Rise and Fall of Narragansetts
In the mid-1800s somewhere in Rhode Island, a farm family saw fit to cross an Eastern Wild Turkey with the domesticated version of the day.
The wild turkeys’ reputation as excellent foragers may be what they thought the domestic bird lacked. Seemingly they must have been well received on the dinner table as the numbers grew dramatically and became popular down into the Mid Atlantic and out into the Midwest, recognized by the American Poultry Association as a standard breed in 1874. As the country matured through the 1900s, the domesticated bronze turkey out-muscled all other breeds as turkey breeders and agriculture in general industrialized for efficiency, leaving the Narragansett turkey breed behind.
We had heard that The Livestock Conservancy (the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, as it was called then) was asking market farmers like us to help preserve the breed for posterity. While we do our part on lots of fronts, we were not interested in starting an agricultural zoo business. We thought if there were a market, we would raise lots of them. There was some reluctance with the counter-intuitiveness of that concept—eat them to save them—but it seemed like creating the demand for this endangered breed could work.
We had been raising the current-day version of domestic turkeys on pasture with organic feed for several years and thought we should give these heritage turkeys a go. We secured several Narragansett and Bourbon Red poults from a poultry hobbyist customer of ours in the mid-2000s. I wish I could remember exactly when.
Narragansetts’ Best Qualities
These birds are seasonal egg layers, from mid-March until mid-May. The eggs are gathered daily and incubated for 28 days. The poult pips the shell in a perfect circle around the widest part of the shell to release itself, a miracle every time.
These little fuzz balls are quite fragile. The hens must be awesome mothers in the wild. They stay in the brooder, a 95-degree safe space, for four or five weeks before we dare put them out to pasture. They bond with the portable shelter, complete with fresh water and feed. Hawks and owls are their nemesis, so we have assembled all manner of contraptions to keep these aerial hunters away.
I now see what the Narragansett breeder was after: an athletic, meaty bird content to stay on the farm, not fly off into the woods. These birds are individually very curious with a great degree of skepticism. They are relaxed when we are about and tense up when strangers approach. Their inclination to warm up slowly to a different watering device or feeder should not be confused with ignorance. It is the very thing that keeps them safe in the wild. I once got the bright idea to feed them microgreen fodder so they could glean the unsprouted seeds, and they never touched it—would not get within 2 or 3 feet, and I am still not sure why.
The turkeys use a variety of vocalizations to talk to one another, be it danger-alert chirps or cooing as they meander through fresh pasture. Mature toms do a deep, barely audible thumping sound when they splay their tail feathers and scrape their wings along the ground in a slow strut. The wattles become fiery red, and a blue pigment emits from the back of their head. The toms will all exhibit this behavior at the same time but rarely fight with each other. Fascinating.
Narragansetts’ Place at Elmwood Stock Farm
So the first heritage turkey group we started with roamed the farm by day and roosted in the tier rails of a tobacco barn that first year. We had to find the nests and collect the eggs when the hen was off feeding. Some were so protective, we had to let the hen hatch them. The most scared I have ever been on Elmwood Stock Farm was collecting the turkey poults while keeping mom at bay. We subsequently built a suitable portable turkey house, complete with communal nest boxes, reducing the stress for us and them.
We harvested a few heritage turkeys that fall to see how they compared to the broad breasted birds we are all familiar with, but we kept most of the birds that year to grow the flock. We loved the texture and flavor, as did the customers we included in our focus group. We had something. Over the years, we have increased the size of our breeder flock to lay eggs for the next year’s turkey crop.
These heritage turkeys are smaller than the conventionally bred domestic turkeys, as the heritage genetics have essentially not changed since the late 1800s. The hens dress out at 6 to 12 pounds, and the toms run from 12 to 20 pounds. The meat is luxurious. Its moisture comes from the rich fat under the skin and marbled throughout.
With our organic, pasture-raised broad breasted turkeys sold out for this year, it’s a good time to treat yourself to a turkey that tastes like turkey was meant to be. In the process, you’ll continue to create demand for the production of these heritage fowl. Your food choices really do make a difference. —Mac Stone