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

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Such efforts have led to a comeback in heritage turkeys that an ALBC report this month calls "amazing." In 1997, from eight traditional varieties, only 1,335 breeding turkeys were found nationwide, including just six of the splendidly black-and-white-feathered Narragansetts. Today the total has grown to 5,363, including 686 Narragansetts. Highland cattle and Shetland sheep are also moving out of the danger zone. And this month Heritage Foods USA began selling rare Barred Plymouth Rock chickens from farms in Michigan and Kansas. "It's been 50 years since authentic chickens have been on the market," says Reese.

How big that market will grow and how much of a premium customers will be willing to pay remain to be seen. Today heritage turkey sells for up to $6 per lb. and Red Wattle pork for $10 per lb., prices that won't fall unless a lot more Americans change their eating habits. Meanwhile, however, the trend is supporting a growing number of small farms that might otherwise have gone under. Since Sorell began raising old breeds, his farm income has doubled, to $40,000 a year, and could grow bigger when his Red Wattle pork starts getting ground for sausages and hot dogs. But profit, he says, is not the point. "I don't like to see things disappear," he says--not small farms or Red Wattles.

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