In the land where the broad-breasted turkey was developed a half century ago, enthusiasts have begun a fledgling effort to bring back the iconic, dark-plumed Thanksgiving birds of an earlier era.
The sustainable food group Slow Food Russian River and 4-H members have teamed up for the past three years to raise, process and market what are called heritage turkeys.
About 10 youths around the county have raised 225 birds to sell for the family table this Thanksgiving.
The aim is to contribute to the national efforts to preserve the distinct breeds of turkeys, as well as to give the youths a unique look at the poultry business.
"They're raising these birds for the market at the market price," said Catherine Thode, the county leader for the 4-H turkey project. Of the national effort, she said, "I think it's a great thing if we can preserve the breeds."
Among the 4-H growers is 12-year-old Matt James of Cotati. He got his 30 turkeys in the mail last spring as near-day-old poults. He said he had to keep them in the family garage beneath a heat lamp for nearly six weeks until their feathers grew out.
"You had to teach them how to eat and drink," said James, a seventh-grader at Rohnert Park's Creekside Middle School. He already has processed about half his birds for market, with the rest to be sold for Thanksgiving.
The 4-H birds sell for $7.50 a pound, considerably more than the price of the frozen turkeys that often are sold by grocers as loss leaders before the national holiday. But those involved agree with 15-year-old 4-H member Isabella Dolcini of Petaluma that the heritage turkey is worth the premium because its meat is "tender and really rich in flavor."
It was here in the 1950s that Sonoma Valley turkey farmer George Nicholas developed a new breed of bird, one with a bigger breast and an ability to more efficiently convert feed into meat.
Nicholas' reliance on geneticists and other scientists turned his breeding farms into a multimillion-dollar business, and his line of white-feathered turkeys now dominates the market. The company he founded moved to Virginia about four years ago.
By the late 20th century, the heritage turkeys were deemed obsolete and seemingly headed toward extinction. But in this decade, enthusiasts and groups such as Slow Food USA have begun working to preserve the various heritage turkey breeds, with such names as Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish and Blue Slate.
Slow Food Russian River also is working to preserve the Sebastopol region's Gravenstein apple. About four years ago, the group's members were contemplating ways to work with youths on a joint turkey project when one of its co-leaders, Randi Seidner, bought a heritage turkey that had been raised by Thode's son Zachary.
"It was the best bird I had ever eaten," Seidner recalled. "It was amazing."
A collaboration resulted. Slow Food helps the youths find buyers, partly by sponsoring an annual dinner that showcases the turkey project and other locally grown foods. As well, Jim Reichardt, a Slow Food co-leader and poultry company owner, each year has provided a portable processing unit for the slaughter of the birds. The youths, their parents and some Slow Food members help process the turkeys.
Dolcini, a sophomore at Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa, said she has come to appreciate both the birds she raises and the turkeys and chickens sold by her parents at their Tully Dolci organic farm.