Heritage Turkeys: What They Are, Where to Get Them, and Why They (Allegedly) Taste Better

With Thanksgiving just 15 days away, there are choices to make. How many pies? How much PBR? Fresh or frozen turkey?

An option that is becoming increasingly popular is the locally-raised "Heritage turkey," which must meet several criteria laid out by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). First, they have a slow-to-moderate growth rate and reach their marketable weight in 28 weeks, allowing time for the bird to "develop strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass."

Second, Heritage turkeys have a long, productive lifespan of 5 to 7 years and must have the "genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of outdoor production systems."

And lastly, a Heritage turkey must "be produced and genetically maintained through natural mating."

The most important factor, of course, is that Heritage turkeys supposedly taste better. Why? Because, for the most part, they eat what they are supposed to eat as they roam free in pastures.

Samantha Rebstock owns Rhineland Farms in Glen Rose and raises Heritage turkeys. Early each morning they are let out of their pens, which increase in size as the turkeys grow, and graze the pastures around their houses. After a few hours, Rebstock goes outside to herd the turkeys back toward home.

"Turkeys aren't like chickens," Rebstock says. "They don't return to the house to eat. They wander so we have to watch them."

The turkeys are in a nearby pasture most of the day, and two Border Collies corral them back into their pens for the night, where they stay for safety. Her 45 turkeys are pasture-fed, but Rebstock explains that some supplementation is needed.

"If you live in Texas then you've seen what the pastures look like recently," she says. "The turkeys would starve if we didn't give them something, so we do supplement them with a whole-grain feed. We have to or they would starve."

There are several places around the Metroplex that have Heritage turkeys, and LocalHarvest.com is a comprehensive site where you can search by zip code. For instance, Urban Acres has Broad Breasted white turkeys from Richardson Farms in Rockdale, and the Rebstocks still have turkeys available for this year. They'll be at Eden's Organic Farm the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, although calling ahead is suggested.

Whole Foods has Heirlooms turkeys that are similar to Heritage, and the store also offers snazzy chart that lays out your options.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.