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Mass marketing may demand a cow that produces more milk or a duck with a bigger breast. But narrowing the genetics means losing valuable traits, such as resistance to disease and drought, intelligence, easy birthing and longevity. Alarmed at the trend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is creating a national gene bank in Fort Collins, Colo., for endangered livestock. The urgency has grown since 9/11. "A virus introduced into a poultry plant with 10,000 birds of a single variety is a potent terrorist opportunity," says ALBC executive director Charles Bassett.
But what fires up many old-breed farmers--and draws food lovers from New York to California--is how the heritage meat tastes. Chefs rave about the complex, succulent flavors of Tamworth pork and Katahdin lamb. Martha Stewart has featured a Standard American Bronze on her Thanksgiving cooking show. At Muss & Turner's in suburban Atlanta, chef Todd Mussman puts Lazy S Farm's lean, dark Red Wattle ham on sandwiches that sell for $11.99 each. "The texture is so silky, it melts on the tongue," says Mussman. He tells customers they are saving not just endangered breeds but small farmers too. Says Mussman: "People want to feel good about what they eat."
And there's a lot to feel good about. Most of those animals are organically fed and humanely raised in free-range conditions, although that is at least in part out of necessity. Heirloom breeds tend to be unsuited to factory farming; they grow slowly and reach smaller sizes than industrial varieties. At Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, N.Y., Gloucestershire Old Spots hogs root around in the woods even in the snow--making for a marbled meat that is, like other old breeds', high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. At Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kans., owner Frank Reese brags that he doesn't clip his purebreds' beaks or pump them full of antibiotics. A webcam allows customers to spy on their prospective Thanksgiving dinners while the birds are still squabbling and gobbling grasshoppers.
Much of the trade in heritage fare these days is either at farmers' markets or over the Internet. LocalHarvest.org connects consumers to 140 heritage-meat farms, including Peaceful Pastures, in Hickman, Tenn., which sells lamb from rare Lincoln Longwools. HeritageFoodsUSA.com touts Texas' Thunder Heart ranch, whose bison are killed in the fields in a Cohahuiltecan Indian ceremony. Farmers are even putting up their own websites and shipping directly to consumers. Two years ago, Mary and Rick Pitman added Bourbon Reds and Narragansetts, an old New England breed, to their Fresno, Calif., ranch and began selling them at MarysTurkeys.com Soon, says Mary, "I was on my hotline eight hours a day with calls about heritage turkeys." She sold 5,000 last year, including one to a U.S. soldier in Iraq.