Turkey Farmers Build a Better Bird
Demand for heritage, organic, and free-range turkeys has grown
recently due to health-conscious consumers who trust small, family farms
With annual sales of 1.4 billion pounds of turkey totaling $1.5
billion, Carolina Turkeys' Butterball, the best selling turkey brand in
the U.S. for more than 40 years, won't be losing its spot on most
American tables any time soon. Still, it's worth noting the underserved
market for alternatives to mass-produced turkeys.
Farmers like Mary Pitman of Mary's Free-Range Turkey and other
independent farms across the country say they are struggling to keep up
with the demand for heritage, organic, and free-range turkeys that they
and their customers believe are healthier than the birds available at
A spokesperson for the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory
estimates heritage turkeys account for about 5% of today's total turkey
market and that the number of heritage turkeys kept alive for breeding
increased by 220% between 1997 and 2003. The Organic Trade Assn.
estimates that the organic poultry market was worth $161 million in
2005, up 53% from 2004.
True Blue Birds
And more and more organizations such as Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org),
and Heritage Foods USA help source heritage turkeys through independent
farmers, part of a movement that began in 2001 to reintroduce the
turkeys to U.S. consumers.
Heritage turkeys, which are admired for their colorful feathers and
their strong legs and wings, can actually fly. Although all turkeys
originated in the Americas, heritage birds have darker, more succulent
meat than the supermarket variety which most people eat at Thanksgiving,
and which have been bred to produce large breasts more in line with
European tastes (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/22/04,
"Not Your Mom's Holiday Turkey").
Independent farmers are finding that the number of consumers who are
willing to spend more on their holiday birds is growing, and the
business is proving to be lucrative. A 2003 article in the Rodale
Institute's The New Farm urged farmers to consider raising
heritage turkeys, citing the significantly higher prices that heritage
turkeys fetch at retail compared with mass-produced birds.
Pitman agrees with the idea that real business opportunities exist in
turkey farming. She says demand for antibiotic-free turkeys like hers
has grown overwhelmingly over the past few years because of consumers
who trust their health more to small family farms than to corporations.
"We have a niche market, because we try to have something that the big
companies aren't going to mass produce," she says.
In addition to her 75,000 standard free-range turkeys and 20,000
organic turkeys, Pitman's Fresno (Calif.)-based Mary's Free-Range Turkey
raised 5,000 heritage turkeys this season. Weeks before Thanksgiving,
Pitman had sold all of her birds to stores.
Whereas the average Butterball turkey costs about $1 per pound,
Pitman's heritage turkeys run between $4 and $6 per pound. She
attributes this extra cost to the fact that heritage turkeys usually
take between six to seven months to reach market weight, as opposed to
two months for mass-produced turkeys.
"Any small farm has got to find niches to survive," says George
Purtill, who expects to sell all of his Connecticut farm's organic
turkeys within days. "You cannot compete with people who have thousands
of acres and can buy feed, fertilizer, and seed in train-car loads."
Michigan farmer John Harnois doubled the number of heritage turkeys
he raised last year for this holiday season and increased his price to
$10 per pound, but calls his financial situation "tenuous" and his
growth merely "steady." He tries to keep up with the rapid rise in
demand, but says "I raise wonderful food, but I hate selling it. I take
a 'no' personally."
MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.
Courtesy of Steve Collins
Mary's Free-Range Turkey
Business is better than it has ever been on Mary Pitman's farm in
Fresno, Calif, where all 100,000 turkeys for the season have already
been sold. Pitman raises about 75,000 broad-breasted, free-range
turkeys, which sell for $1.59 to $1.89 per pound, 20,000 organic
turkeys, which sell for $2 to $3 per pound, and 5,000 heritage turkeys,
which sell for between $4 and $6 per pound.
Pitman says demand for turkeys like hers, with no antibiotics, has grown
overwhelmingly over the past few years because of consumers who trust
their health more to small family farms than to corporations. "We have a
niche market, because we try to have something that the big companies
aren't going to mass produce," she says.