November 23, 2011 / 5:21 PM / 9 years ago

Arkansas farmer seeks to save historic turkey breeds

ROLAND, Ark (Reuters) - P. Allen Smith can talk for hours about saving rare poultry. He also will be eating one of them for Thanksgiving.

P. Allen Smith rounds up his flock of blue state turkeys at his 650-acre Moss Mountain Farm outside Little Rock, Arkansas, in this 2009 handout image obtained by Reuters on November 23, 2011. REUTERS/Courtesy Heritage Poultry Conservancy/Handout

On his 650-acre Moss Mountain Farm outside Little Rock, Smith breeds domestic heritage poultry - turkey, chickens, ducks and geese - threatened with extinction.

“The Thanksgiving turkeys that people put on their tables now are not what their great-grandparents ate,” Smith told Reuters. “They ate birds with names like the Bronze, the Black Spanish and the Slate, but the grocery store ones originated from these.”

Smith, a garden and lifestyle designer and author, is known by television viewers around the country for garden design advice and food tips on two PBS shows as well as NBC’s Today show and the Weather Channel. But on his farm, he has cultivated another passion.

In 2009, Smith began the Heritage Poultry Conservancy, a non-profit organization, as a way to support threatened breeds and strains of poultry. The conservancy focuses on fowl that were developed or recognized in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. He now has about 600 birds on his farm.

These poultry breeds were once very common. They fled the country during some of its most desperate times, such as the Civil War and the Great Depression, Smith said.

But as factory farms and hybrid genetics became more prevalent in the last several decades, these birds began to vanish quickly.

“My grandmother raised these types of birds and so did a lot of other people’s grandmothers,” Smith said during a tour of his sprawling farm. “Now we have a monoculture when it comes to poultry.”

Smith, a Tennessee native who moved to Little Rock as a child, started showing poultry at 4-H shows at age 10. On his farm, a brown flag, flying below the American flag, promotes the conservancy. Several old cotton wagons from the Arkansas Delta are used for poultry houses. The farm also has an incubator room for eggs in a hatchery on the grounds.

The poultry do not have pet names because they are raised for meat and eggs. Farm workers use manure to fertilize Smith’s gardens.

“This is not a petting zoo of exotic chickens,” he said. “The eating of these animals is what saves them. These are animals that have lost their jobs and we are trying to put them to work.”

And yes, he will eat one of the Blacks, often referred as the Black Spanish, or blue slate turkeys, for Thanksgiving.

Christopher Columbus and other early explorers were given Blacks by various Indian tribes on return voyages to Europe. The Indians often used the feathers in ceremonial dress. The Black became popular among Colonists and then throughout the United States until the early 20th century. They are now extremely rare, as are the Blue Slates.

Smith pointed out that turkeys were once much larger than they are now because the industrialized farm setting rushes the growing process.

It is important, Smith said, to raise heritage poultry in traditional ways.

Birds should naturally reproduce by breeding instead of by artificial insemination, he said. They should have a long, productive outdoor lifespan and adapt to their surroundings. They should have a slow growth rate to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs.

To be classified as heritage poultry, birds must be recognized by the American Poultry Association as having parent and grandparent stock prior to the mid-20th century. Only a few farms in the United States have such birds. Smith acquired most of his breeds from Frank Reese’s Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas.

Reese has been raising poultry for 60 years. Some of the turkey breeds he remembers as a child such as the White Holland, which Aztec Indians bred in the 1500s, are nearly extinct or are raised only as show birds. But Reese still raises them.

This Thanksgiving, Reese sold a few White Hollands along with about 8,000 Bronze, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, and Black turkeys from his farm

“The idea of a white turkey doesn’t appeal to a lot of people,” Reese told Reuters by phone. “People want color and it’s too bad because they are a very practical turkey.”

Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune

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