Heritage turkeys at Judd Culver's farm

Issue No. 116: KellyBronze Heritage Breed Turkeys

A few farmers are raising the breeds of turkeys our grandparents would remember from their childhood. This is a story of one of them.

A breed apart.

But first off, let’s talk a bit about modern turkey farming. Over the last several decades, the two companies that control 98% of the turkey breeds in the US have focused on developing turkeys that transform feed into meat very fast. In that pursuit, they’ve been phenomenally successful. But their success has come at the cost of everything else—especially flavor.

It’s not the only option. There are a handful of farmers in the US raising heritage-breed turkeys. These birds are slower growing. They take twice as long to reach their full size as most birds do today. That means they eat way more—and thus, cost way more to raise. They’re often bred with an eye toward being able to survive outside in the farmyard. They have strong immune systems that can fight off illness without the drugs that are in the daily feed of nearly all commercially raised turkeys. And they have an incredible depth of flavor.

Enter Judd Culver.

Judd and his family live in Crozet, Virginia, in a wooded valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains. As the crow (er, turkey?) flies, the farm is less than three miles from Shenandoah National Park.

Judd raises KellyBronze turkeys, a heritage breed developed a few decades ago by father and son Derek and Paul Kelly over in the UK. The Kellys have always focused on two goals for their birds. First, they should be able to live outside on pasture. And second, they should taste fantastic.

Judd’s birds live most of their lives outdoors. When they’re newly hatched, they stay in the barn for warmth and safety, but within a few weeks they’re outside. For the first few weeks outdoors, they live under netting to protect them from hawks. Once they get to be about ten weeks old, they’re big enough that they get put to pasture.

On the pasture, Judd’s birds have tons of space to walk, fly, peck, strut, and live full turkey lives. This year, Judd is raising a thousand birds on five acres of pasture, so he’s got 200 birds per acre. The industry standard is 17,000 birds per acre. In other words, Judd’s birds have 85 times more space than the average turkey. (Just imagine if, for every member of your household, you added an additional 84 people living in your home!)  While out in the field, they’ll forage for grasses, leaves, and bugs in addition to the corn and roasted soy that Judd gives them.

When I visited, I noticed there weren’t many buildings on the farm. I asked, “When the turkeys are on pasture, do they have any shelter?” He said, “Sure they do. It’s called a tree.” Once Judd’s turkeys go outdoors they never come back inside in their lifetime. That’s incredibly rare. On most poultry farms, even ones where the birds are raised on pasture, they get brought inside the barn each night to protect them from predators. Judd’s got plenty of predators: bobcats, coyotes, possums, raccoons, and more. But he keeps his birds safe with a couple of precautions. First, the pasture is surrounded by an electrified fence. And second, the flock is protected by a pair of guard llamas. Yep, you read that right: llamas. Their names are Silk Buttons and Sequoia. Don’t let their cute names fool you into thinking they’re sweet. If any predators get past the fence, the llamas are quick to stomp on them.

There’s one other huge thing that makes Judd’s farm unique. He built his own processing plant on site. That’s practically unheard of for small-scale poultry farmers. Most truck their birds to a distant slaughterhouse that operates how it sees fit. Judd’s birds simply walk across the yard where they’ve lived their whole lives, much less stressful. Judd gets to oversee every aspect of their processing, about which he has many strong opinions. Like this:

Judd uses a century-old style of processing called New York dressed.

A New York dressed turkey starts off like any other: it’s slaughtered, then plucked. After that, the similarity stops. Most turkeys are then eviscerated, chilled, and packaged for sale, all in a few hours. At Judd’s farm, they leave the birds intact and hang them, chilled, for one to four weeks. This has the same function as dry aging a steak: it makes the turkey more tender, and gives the enzymes in the meat more time to create deeper, more complex flavors. I know that sounds odd, dry aging turkey like beef. It did to me, too. And then I tasted it.

A heritage turkey makes a stunning Thanksgiving centerpiece.

These are super flavorful birds—rich, juicy, luscious, complex. They’re not gamy, though. The best way I can describe it is that they taste especially turkey-ish, like the Platonic ideal of turkey flavor that lives in holiday memories. This is the sort of deep turkey flavor that’s going to appeal to every meat-eater at the table.

There are all sorts of reasons you might choose to serve a heritage breed turkey this year, whether raised by Judd or, if you can find one, from a local farmer in your area. They support genetic diversity. They’re raised outdoors on pasture, walking and pecking under the trees. In Judd’s case, they’re processed with a traditional American method. But at the end of the day, there’s only one thing everyone will be talking about: the flavor.