The turkey you are most likely to see at your grocery store this holiday season is the broad breasted white turkey. This breed of turkey has been engineered to grow to an average of 32 pounds over 18 weeks, according to Local Harvest. Generally, the conditions in which these turkeys are raised are crowded, dirty and cruel. The feed and chemicals given to these birds to encourage rapid growth is unnatural and unhealthy for the bird — and not so healthy for those who end up eating the bird.


Fortunately, we have plenty of other options for the birds that grace our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables this holiday season. Here are a few.


Heritage turkeys

There are many other breeds of turkeys besides the broad breasted white turkey, and they are making a comeback. They have traditionally been called standard turkeys but recently the term heritage has been used to identify these birds. Small turkey farmers are raising breeds like the standard bronze, bourbon red, Jersey buff, Slate, black Spanish, Narragansett and white Holland that are more moist and flavorful than the typical supermarket turkey.


Most of these small farmers are also raising their turkeys under more humane conditions than those of mass-marketed turkeys. If they are raised correctly, heritage turkeys roam freely and are fed a natural diet. Because their diets are natural, they take more time to reach their market weight — usually 24 to 30 weeks.


Obviously, small farmers who let their turkeys roam freely and allow time for them to reach their market weight naturally are going to need to charge more for their heritage turkeys than the grocery store will charge. They range about $4 a pound. While they are an excellent choice, not everyone can afford them. But there are other options.


Organic turkeys

Organic turkeys can be any breed, even the broad breasted white turkey. They are raised under USDA organic standards. They are fed an organic diet. No pesticides, herbicides, hormones or antibiotics are used on or around the birds so none of those chemicals are passed along to those who eat them.


While there are some guidelines for organics that say the birds must have access to roam freely, that can be interpreted as one small exit into a small yard — so small that many birds never make their way there from the turkey house. It is difficult to tell what kind of life a supermarket organic turkey may have had. If you buy from a small, local organic turkey farmer and are able to ask questions, you can have a better idea.


Organic turkeys can range widely in cost. You will be more likely to find a less expensive organic bird at the grocery store than at the farmers market.


Sustainable, free-range, or humanely raised turkeys

These terms are unregulated and could mean anything. If you see a turkey with these labels on them, and you can’t find out exactly what is meant by them, you may not be buying a better turkey at all.


However, if a local farm is selling birds with these labels and you can find out what the farmer means, you can decide for yourself if they meet the criteria you find acceptable. Many small turkey farmers raise their birds organically, but because they don’t have the USDA organic certification, they can’t make an organic claim. They often turn to some of these other terms.


At my local farmers market, there are two very reputable farms selling sustainable, free-range turkeys this year. They both are selling at $3.50 a pound, and because I can ask questions, I know these turkeys meet standards that I’m satisfied with.


Sources for better birds


  • Local Harvest – This site can point you to places that sell turkeys online or to local farms that you can buy from directly.
  • Your local farmers market – This link will point you to Local Harvest again, but link is to their farmers market locator.
  • Mary’s Turkey – This site has heritage birds to sell, but it also points you to sellers in different states.
  • Heritage Food USA – A site for heritage turkeys and other better foods.           

Are you branching out beyond the supermarket this year or have you been doing it for several years? Where do you get your turkey?


MNN homepage photo: Jgroup/iStockPhoto


Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Better turkey choices
Generally, the conditions in which turkeys are raised are crowded, dirty and cruel. Fortunately, we have plenty of other options for the birds that grace our Th