Eat Them Or Lose Them

Food lovers are developing a taste for heritage breeds ignored by big farms and nearly extinct

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RESTOCKED: The Sorells are bringing back Bourbon Red turkeys and Red Wattle pigs

Down a dirt road, amid rolling hills of alfalfa, Larry and Madonna Sorell's 40-acre spread looks, smells and sounds like any other Kansas homestead. The weathered wooden farmhouse. The whiff of manure. The cacophony of grunting, gobbling and bleating. But the livestock at Lazy S Farms are no ordinary farm animals. Rooting about in the fields are Red Wattle pigs, a breed thought to have been imported from New Caledonia in the 1700s and practically extinct until a wild herd surfaced in Texas. The turkeys are Standard American Bronzes, which were Thanksgiving fare for more than a century but have now been reduced to some 950 breeder birds. The lambs are Katahdins, a subspecies developed in Maine and named for the state's highest peak.

Fifty years ago, such breeds were common on family farms. But with the intensive post--World War II industrialization of American agriculture, they all but died out, surviving only on isolated farmsteads for local consumption. In the past five years, however, a new market has sprung up for now rare varieties, thanks to a lively network of big-name chefs, conservation-minded farmers and slow-food devotees. Like heirloom tomatoes and antique roses, so-called heritage meats are attracting discriminating customers--and fetching top dollar.

For Larry Sorell, 65, a fourth-generation grain planter, raising rare animals began as a lark. But as he learned more about the threat to the survival of traditional varieties, he came to see his hobby as a higher calling. "If a breed goes extinct, all the genetics go down the tube," he says. Besides, he adds as he waters a passel of squealing piglets, "I just love to watch 'em grow."

Sorell's pigs aren't the only things that are growing. Heritage Foods USA, the largest mail-order firm in the business, was buying five 200-lb. hogs a month from Lazy S but is ratcheting up to 25 a month to meet demand. Besides Red Wattles, named for their ruddy hair and folds of neck skin, the company's biannual "almanac" offers 70 products, from Tunis lamb to Bourbon Red turkeys. "Dozens of delicious American treasures with a long history are on the brink of extinction," says Patrick Martins, co-founder of the company. "We must eat them to save them."

The renewed interest in rare breeds is driven in part by the limited offerings of factory farms in the U.S. Agribusinesses, trying to maximize efficiency in a competitive market, pursue a ruthless genetic specialization, driving the industry toward what ecologists call monocultures--vast numbers of a single variety. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), 15 different breeds of pigs were raised for market in the 1930s; today, six of them are extinct. Only three varieties--Hampshire, Yorkshire and Duroc--account for 75% of U.S. production. In the 1920s, some 60 breeds of chickens thrived on American farms; today one hybrid, the Cornish Rock cross, supplies nearly every supermarket. A single turkey dominates: the Broad Breasted White, a fast-growing commercial creation with such a huge breast and short legs that it is unable to mate naturally.

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