4-H, Slow Food team up to provide near-extinct breeds for holiday table

  • Matt James, 12, brings in food for his turkeys, as his father Jeff closes the gate behind him, on Thursday afternoon, October 23, 2008.

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.

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