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Article from the Times Magazine


Monday, Jun. 06, 2005
Eat Them Or Lose Them
Food lovers are developing a taste for "heritage" breeds ignored by big farms and nearly extinct
 

Picture of Heritage Turkeys

JOEL SARTORE FOR TIME

RESTOCKED: The Sorells are bringing back Bourbon Red turkeys and Red Wattle pigs

 Down a dirt road, amid rolling hills of alfalfa, Larry and Madonna Sorell's 40-acre spread looks, smells and sounds like any other Kansas homestead. The weathered wooden farmhouse. The whiff of manure. The cacophony of grunting, gobbling and bleating. But the livestock at Lazy S Farms are no ordinary farm animals. Rooting about in the fields are Red Wattle pigs, a breed thought to have been imported from New Caledonia in the 1700s and practically extinct until a wild herd surfaced in Texas. The turkeys are Standard American Bronzes, which were Thanksgiving fare for more than a century but have now been reduced to some 950 breeder birds. The lambs are Katahdins, a subspecies developed in Maine and named for the state's highest peak.

Fifty years ago, such breeds were common on family farms. But with the intensive post--World War II industrialization of American agriculture, they all but died out, surviving only on isolated farmsteads for local consumption. In the past five years, however, a new market has sprung up for now rare varieties, thanks to a lively network of big-name chefs, conservation-minded farmers and slow-food devotees. Like heirloom tomatoes and antique roses, so-called heritage meats are attracting discriminating customers--and fetching top dollar.

For Larry Sorell, 65, a fourth-generation grain planter, raising rare animals began as a lark. But as he learned more about the threat to the survival of traditional varieties, he came to see his hobby as a higher calling. "If a breed goes extinct, all the genetics go down the tube," he says. Besides, he adds as he waters a passel of squealing piglets, "I just love to watch 'em grow."

Sorell's pigs aren't the only things that are growing. Heritage Foods USA, the largest mail-order firm in the business, was buying five 200-lb. hogs a month from Lazy S but is ratcheting up to 25 a month to meet demand. Besides Red Wattles, named for their ruddy hair and folds of neck skin, the company's biannual "almanac" offers 70 products, from Tunis lamb to Bourbon Red turkeys. "Dozens of delicious American treasures with a long history are on the brink of extinction," says Patrick Martins, co-founder of the company. "We must eat them to save them."

The renewed interest in rare breeds is driven in part by the limited offerings of factory farms in the U.S. Agribusinesses, trying to maximize efficiency in a competitive market, pursue a ruthless genetic specialization, driving the industry toward what ecologists call monocultures--vast numbers of a single variety. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), 15 different breeds of pigs were raised for market in the 1930s; today, six of them are extinct. Only three varieties--Hampshire, Yorkshire and Duroc--account for 75% of U.S. production. In the 1920s, some 60 breeds of chickens thrived on American farms; today one hybrid, the Cornish Rock cross, supplies nearly every supermarket. A single turkey dominates: the Broad Breasted White, a fast-growing commercial creation with such a huge breast and short legs that it is unable to mate naturally.

Mass marketing may demand a cow that produces more milk or a duck with a bigger breast. But narrowing the genetics means losing valuable traits, such as resistance to disease and drought, intelligence, easy birthing and longevity. Alarmed at the trend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is creating a national gene bank in Fort Collins, Colo., for endangered livestock. The urgency has grown since 9/11. "A virus introduced into a poultry plant with 10,000 birds of a single variety is a potent terrorist opportunity," says ALBC executive director Charles Bassett.

But what fires up many old-breed farmers--and draws food lovers from New York to California--is how the heritage meat tastes. Chefs rave about the complex, succulent flavors of Tamworth pork and Katahdin lamb. Martha Stewart has featured a Standard American Bronze on her Thanksgiving cooking show. At Muss & Turner's in suburban Atlanta, chef Todd Mussman puts Lazy S Farm's lean, dark Red Wattle ham on sandwiches that sell for $11.99 each. "The texture is so silky, it melts on the tongue," says Mussman. He tells customers they are saving not just endangered breeds but small farmers too. Says Mussman: "People want to feel good about what they eat."

And there's a lot to feel good about. Most of those animals are organically fed and humanely raised in free-range conditions, although that is at least in part out of necessity. Heirloom breeds tend to be unsuited to factory farming; they grow slowly and reach smaller sizes than industrial varieties. At Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, N.Y., Gloucestershire Old Spots hogs root around in the woods even in the snow--making for a marbled meat that is, like other old breeds', high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. At Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kans., owner Frank Reese brags that he doesn't clip his purebreds' beaks or pump them full of antibiotics. A webcam allows customers to spy on their prospective Thanksgiving dinners while the birds are still squabbling and gobbling grasshoppers.

Much of the trade in heritage fare these days is either at farmers' markets or over the Internet. LocalHarvest.org connects consumers to 140 heritage-meat farms, including Peaceful Pastures, in Hickman, Tenn., which sells lamb from rare Lincoln Longwools. HeritageFoodsUSA.com touts Texas' Thunder Heart ranch, whose bison are killed in the fields in a Cohahuiltecan Indian ceremony. Farmers are even putting up their own websites and shipping directly to consumers. Two years ago, Mary and Rick Pitman added Bourbon Reds and Narragansetts, an old New England breed, to their Fresno, Calif., ranch and began selling them at MarysTurkeys.com Soon, says Mary, "I was on my hotline eight hours a day with calls about heritage turkeys." She sold 5,000 last year, including one to a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

Such efforts have led to a comeback in heritage turkeys that an ALBC report this month calls "amazing." In 1997, from eight traditional varieties, only 1,335 breeding turkeys were found nationwide, including just six of the splendidly black-and-white-feathered Narragansetts. Today the total has grown to 5,363, including 686 Narragansetts. Highland cattle and Shetland sheep are also moving out of the danger zone. And this month Heritage Foods USA began selling rare Barred Plymouth Rock chickens from farms in Michigan and Kansas. "It's been 50 years since authentic chickens have been on the market," says Reese.

How big that market will grow and how much of a premium customers will be willing to pay remain to be seen. Today heritage turkey sells for up to $6 per lb. and Red Wattle pork for $10 per lb., prices that won't fall unless a lot more Americans change their eating habits. Meanwhile, however, the trend is supporting a growing number of small farms that might otherwise have gone under. Since Sorell began raising old breeds, his farm income has doubled, to $40,000 a year, and could grow bigger when his Red Wattle pork starts getting ground for sausages and hot dogs. But profit, he says, is not the point. "I don't like to see things disappear," he says--not small farms or Red Wattles.