Shanaroba Farm is a small organic operation nestled in the Roaring Fork Valley near Carbondale, Colo., overlooking the Elk Mountains. There, Jim Sorenson raises heritage or historic breeds of turkeys. At Shanaroba, from an Arabic phrase meaning "the future can be better than the past," Sorenson raises seven varieties of heritage turkeys including several that were near extinct and have been championed for a comeback by the international Slow Food movement. The farm raises them as naturally and as organically as possible, feeding them a diet of corn, wild apples and squash, with zucchini and pumpkins specifically planted as food crops for the birds and the apples harvested from nearby wild or abandoned orchards that receive a pruning in return for their fruit.
Sorenson's turkeys also feast on grasshoppers, dandelions, field grasses and seeds, with the entire flock of 300 venturing out into the hay field for foraging, led by Sorenson and rounded up by his dog, two to three times a day. Occasionally, a stray dozen or two dozen turkeys make their way onto the roof of Sorenson's two-story farmhouse, then fly down in a storm of squawks and feathers.
These are not your hybrid double-breasted Butterballs, the turkey of your mother's Thanksgiving dreams. For those birds, Sorenson has nothing but pity.
Commercial broad-breasted turkeys are raised in confinement, with little concern for the animal's health or for flavor -- the goal is uniformity: abnormally large, white meat breasts, golden flesh-colored skin and a neat carcass. The average commercial operation grows 1,500 birds in an area smaller than Sorenson uses to raise 100. "Mono-cropped" (inbred), commercially raised turkeys are genetically identical and are all susceptible to the same diseases. They can't fly, are artificially inseminated and are unable to survive in a natural setting. They are pumped with antibiotics, arsenic, steroids and other growth hormones, and then processed with BHT and canola oil after they're slaughtered to create a moist breast.
"They're given 30 times more antibiotics than we'll have in our lifetime," said Sorenson. "Sometimes they grow so fast their arteries explode.
"If there's a little disease that comes in, say a cold, my flock will have sniffles for two or three hours, then next morning they're fine. In the warehouses, one germ and they're dead, all of them."
A healthy gene pool
Sorenson didn't want to be involved in growing what he calls the "mutated" varieties, so when he originally started his 5-acre backyard farming venture, he sought heritage varieties, growing 20 birds at first for his own use.
"I searched for the varieties our great-great-grandfathers grew, and varieties the Aztecs and Mayans grew in Mexico," he said. "When Slow Food USA found out that I was raising these heritage turkeys, they pretty much guaranteed me a market for my birds, so I've been growing them and increasing the size of the flock ever since."
Depending on the demand for his turkeys from consumers, Sorenson hopes to increase the number of turkeys he raises and to eventually establish his own hatchery.
"My gene pool goes back 2,000 years," says Sorenson, referring to the Black Spanish (aka Black Norfolk), Narragansett, Heritage Bronze, Buff, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Slate turkeys he raises. "There are about five or six different hatcheries within the United States that are certified, disease free, inspected a lot. I buy good quality chicks from reputable hatcheries.
"It's important to keep a viable gene pool alive to protect biodiversity, instead of interbreeding grandpa turkey with granddaughters."
The Broad-Breasted White turkey, with which most of us are familiar, at least in its plucked frozen version, has a gene pool that is not passed on naturally and is thereby disappearing.
"They're becoming sterile," said Sorenson. "They don't have the gene pool to carry on. They don't lay fertile eggs."
The heritage breeds, says Sorenson, once processed for cooking by a small family-run plant near his farm, have a darker skin and darker colored meat. The flavor, he says, is incomparable.
"You bite into one of these, I mean, they've got definite flavor," he said.
Sorenson waxes poetic over the beauty of the heritage varieties with their distinctive colors and tail-feather patterns, and upholds the dignity of the turkey despite its reputation as a dumb bird.
"Turkeys are not naturally dumb," said Sorenson. "Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey as the symbol for our country. He thought the eagle was a bandit and a scourge and of poor character.
"It's the hybrid varieties that are so stupid, because they have no opportunity to learn, living in such crowded conditions. Poor things, they can go outside, look up at the rain, and their nostrils are so small from inbreeding, the rain fills their sinuses and they drown. Worse, they never have the ability to chase a grasshopper, to run in the field."
It might be a bit late to order a Shanaroba heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, but Sorenson says he'll have a second crop available for the Christmas season, available at Spinelli's Market in Denver (4621 E. 23rd Ave., 303/329-8143) or possibly locally if he receives enough orders. The prize birds go for $5 per pound.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Shanaroba Organic Farm, breeders of heritage turkeys
7299 County Road 100 Carbondale, Colo. 81623
970/963-2134 or e-mail email@example.com