GEORGETOWN, Ky. — With Thanksgiving around the corner, have you bought your turkey? If not, you might want to consider trying a Heritage turkey; a variety you may have never tried or heard of before.

Six-generation family farm Elmwood Stock Farm has raised their birds, unique because of how the way they're raised, for about 15 years.

What You Need To Know

  • All domesticated turkeys descend from wild turkeys native to North and South America

  • Heritage turkeys are unique, compared to mass produced store-bought turkeys, because of how they are raised

  • To qualify as a Heritage turkey, the turkeys must meet three criteria 

  • Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown, Ky. has raised these birds for about 15 years

When you hear that the turkey is ready on Thanksgiving day, most people chow down on their meal without much thought about the turkey itself.

When Spectrum News visited Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown, it was feeding time for the farm’s Heritage turkeys, which are managed by the farm’s Co-owner, Mac Stone. 

“These are the bloodlines that were the basis of the Thanksgiving turkey from our founding fathers, that ate the Eastern Wild turkey, to these domesticated versions,” Stone explained, regarding the over 200 Heritage turkeys in the flock. 

According to The Livestock Conservancy (TLC), a nonprofit with a mission to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction, “All domesticated turkeys descend from wild turkeys indigenous to North and South America.” 

However, Heritage turkeys are “defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised,” TLC’s website explains. Specifically, there are three criteria that must be met to be called a Heritage turkey.

First, all Heritage turkeys must be reproduced and genetically maintained through natural mating. 

“The Broad Breasted turkeys, the consummation of the birds that you see in the grocery store, they’ve been bred to have so much heavy white breast meat, they can’t mate naturally so it’s a whole artificial insemination program,” Stone told Spectrum News.

Heritage turkeys also must have a long and productive lifespan, in terms of breeding and living outside. It’s expected that breeding hens can produce for 5-7 years, and that breeding toms can for 3-5 years. A Heritage turkey must also have the genetic ability to withstand the environmental hardships of living outdoors, since they aren’t raised in environmentally controlled barns. 

Stone said that Elmwood Stock Farm’s turkey enclosures are moved about once a week. 

“By moving them every week, they move to fresh grass, fresh bags, fresh digging in the dirt, the grass comes back beautifully. I know it helps the turkeys outside, and it helps the pasture, really,” he said.

The final requirement to be considered a Heritage turkey is a slow growth rate. Heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, while the most common turkey breed served at Thanksgiving takes 14 to 18 weeks to mature.

“The slow growth rate allows all of the natural intake of grasses, and clovers, and weeds, and insects, and bugs, to fully populate that meat and fat profile. [That’s] where the flavor comes from. The slow growth builds the flavor,” Stone said. 

The American Poultry Association recognizes eight varieties of turkey, in its standard of perfection, all considered Heritage turkeys. All varieties of Heritage turkeys are also are listed as an endangered farm animal by TLC

Eight varieties of turkey in APA's Standard of Perfection/endangered status:

  • Beltsville small white - critical
  • White holland - threatened 
  • Black - threatened
  • Royal palm - threatened
  • Narragansett - watch
  • Bourbon red - watch
  • Slate - watch 
  • Standard bronze - watch

Stone said about 15 years ago, TLC contacted small farmers like him, asking for help to preserve Heritage turkeys.

“We said, 'Well, we are not in the zoo business, but if customers like them, and if you let us eat them, we’ll grow lots of them,'” Stone said. “These birds are a success, an indicator of the success of the local food movement.”

Elmwood Stock Farm raises four heritage turkey breeds: the Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, Slate, and their most plentiful Heritage turkey, the Narragansett. 

“The meat that they produce, it’s succulent; it’s got more fat in it. It’s got flavor from being out here on the pasture and what not. It’s a richer meat; you don’t feel like you need to eat lots of big ole slices of turkey breast,” Stone told Spectrum News. 

The speciality-raised birds don’t come cheap, given all of the extra care and resources it takes to raise them. Currently, Elwood Stock Farm has 9-14 pound Heritage turkeys available for sale online, which cost $199-$229. 

However, Stone said that a Heritage turkey represents value that money can’t buy.

“Other values that you hold dear, this bird represents what a lot of the people hold dear, and their value systems for the rest of their life,” he said.

If you’re interested to have a Heritage Turkey on your table for Thanksgiving, you can purchase on on Elmwood Stock Farm’s website. To get the turkey, Elmwood Stock Farm offers pick-up at the farm, local delivery, shipping in the U.S. and pick-ups around major cities in Kentucky.