When Bill Yockey bought a 6-1/2-acre piece of land in Linesville, Pennsylvania, as a place to go fishing with his father, he had no idea that he was about to become a turkey farmer. But when his neighbors asked if he’d raise turkeys for them, his interest was piqued.
A little research led him to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and its list of endangered heritage turkey breeds. In 1991, he made the big move: He bought 11 young Midget Whites and 17 Standard Bronzes, both among the most critically threatened. Since then, Bill has become a staunch preservationist and an expert in rare turkey breeds who’s often invited to speak at conferences nationwide.
Today, he still raises Midgets and Bronzes, and his Townline Farm Poultry Reserve has expanded to 34-1/2 acres, with more than 300 heritage birds. Yet the farm remains true to its core values of sustainable farming: His turkeys are free to graze, forage for bugs and worms, and run and fly about. They’re raised naturally with no antibiotics or hormones.
Bill is not alone in his effort to preserve rare turkeys. From California to Maine, an increasing number of small turkey farmers are raising threatened breeds—not just Midgets and Bronzes but also Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, and others. These farmers are responding to conservation groups and to a rising consumer demand for turkey meat with more flavor. In the last 50 years, industrial-scale farms have limited their turkey flocks to only one breed, the Broadbreasted White, bred to be bigger, grow faster, and have a larger breast—all at the expense of flavor. And this proliferation of the Broadbreasted White has put traditional breeds in danger of extinction.
“They’re perky, nosy, and active foragers, and they taste great,” says Bill of his heritage turkeys. Their natural diet gives their flesh a dark color (particularly on the legs) and a rich, deep turkey flavor with a hint of gaminess. Because they get a lot of exercise, their meat is chewier and firmer than that of supermarket turkeys, but it’s still moist and juicy.