As President Donald Trump continued a White House tradition and pardoned two genetically-engineered Broad Breasted White turkeys, Frank Reese was tending a different sort of bird in Lindsborg, Kansas: The descendants of the first domesticated turkeys bred in North America.
Reese believes he is the only farmer in America breeding and raising USDA certified and American Poultry Association standard-bred heritage turkeys. He is a fourth generation Kansan, a 12th generation farmer.
He has no employees. He also has no family so he isn’t sure who will carry on the tradition when he grows too old to farm.
His birds are processed in Ohio by the Kopp family at Whitewater Processing. They are sold by Heritage Foods, USA, a farm-to-table online butcher founded by Peter Martins.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for them,” Reese said.
Martins called him “the godfather of American poultry.”
Today’s heritage turkeys trace their lineage to black turkeys in Mexico and Guatemala that were domesticated by indigenous people. Spaniards brought those turkeys to Europe. Pilgrims brought black turkeys with them to New England, where they mated with the Eastern Wild Turkey to produce the Standard Bronze.
Variants of this turkey include the Narragansett, raised in Rhode Island, the Bourbon Red, raised in Kentucky and the Jersey Buff, raised in New Jersey.
The White Holland turkey was prized for its white feathers and became the breeding stock that produced the Broad Breasted White, according to the Livestock Conservancy. Reese estimates there may only be 300 White Hollands in existence.
Reese’s turkeys range in numbers up to 3,000. Industrial farms in the United States produced an estimated 242 million turkeys in 2017, according to the National Turkey Federation, an industry lobbying group that has been presenting Thanksgiving turkeys to the president since 1947.
When President Harry Truman received the first presidential Thanksgiving turkey of the modern era from the National Turkey Federation, it was brown like heritage turkeys. During the Eisenhower administration, the first white bird appeared and that has been the tradition ever since.
The white turkey that most Americans will eat on Thanksgiving was first hybridized in the late 1950s in Sonoma, California by poultry breeder George Nicholas. It has large breasts and short legs. It cannot fly or mate.
“It is genetic engineering at its finest,” Reese said. “It took him 10 or 20 years to perfect his bird.”
White feathers have white quills so when the bird is plucked, it looks clean. Brown turkeys have black quills which leave behind dark spots that consumers found unappealing.
This year’s presidential turkeys, named Peas and Carrots, were pardoned Tuesday and will be sent to live at Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, but it is unlikely they will live long.
“They are dead-end birds, built to die,” Martins said. According to Reese, Broad Breasted Whites are engineered to grow to 40 pounds in 19 weeks. “They are obese,” he said.
In addition to turkeys, Reese also has 2,000 chickens, 300 ducks, 150 geese, eight dogs and three llamas that keep predators at bay. He once spoke at a National Turkey Federation meeting in Washington about his farming operation. “There is no money in this,” he said. “They wouldn’t do it.”
According to Martins, Reese has really old turkeys on his farm. Reese explained that he does not believe in killing the breeding hens when they are past their prime.
“A hen might have 13 to 15 baby turkeys every year for seven or eight years,” he said. “Then, she will go through menopause between 10 and 12 years of age and get arthritis and other age-related diseases. If an old hen has done really good by me, I think she has the right to die of old age.”
The future of heritage birds depends upon someone seeing the value in breeding them. Turkey sperm does not live long, and the eggs cannot be frozen.
“You’ve got to save the live birds,” Reese said.