By Sheridan Wimmer, courtesy Kansas Living magazine
Reese’s ‘fringe flocks’ in Kansas nurture heritage turkeys
For Frank Reese in McPherson County, protecting his turkey flock has been his life’s mission, passion and livelihood.
The Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg is Reese’s avian sanctuary – protecting heritage turkey breeds.
“Those white turkeys over there are White Hollands,” he says as he points to a few turkeys with white feathers. “They’re very rare. There’s only a few of them left in the world.”
Saving symbolic genetics
While most people think about the primary protein we enjoy at Thanksgiving when talking turkey – the Broad Breasted White, which is the most-consumed variety of turkey and is granted a presidential pardon during the holiday – Reese’s mission goes beyond sparing one turkey. His passion lies in safeguarding entire genetic lines from extinction.
“There’s eight different varieties recognized by the American Poultry Association as heritage breeds,” Reese says. “What they’ve actually been called for 150 years is standard bred, but people have used the term heritage now to describe them.”
The heritage breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association include:
Narragansett Royal Palm White Holland
Beltsville Small White Slate
When consumer demand for turkey increased in the United States, a shift occurred in the paradigm of turkey production. The 20th century saw an uptick in commercial production and breeding for turkeys to be raised in larger-scale operations. While efficiencies in raising turkey for public consumption improved, the impact on heritage breeds was felt.
Many of the birds Reese raises and breeds are on The Livestock Conservancy’s endangered watch or threatened species list, including the White Hollands he pointed out.
“I’ve worked so hard to save these birds,” Reese says. “The Bronzes came to Kansas in 1917 by train and have had a very long history of existence. Some of these turkeys have 200 years of proving their ability to survive. The population of these birds is dependent on people like me to keep their genetic lines alive. The problem is there aren’t a lot of people breeding heritage turkeys because it’s costly and time-consuming.”
Reese says his method takes twice as long to produce turkeys as conventional methods, and there’s only one processing plant left in the United States that takes his turkeys.
“I have to send my turkeys to Ohio for processing,” he says. “I’m only able to do that once a year. And it’s at a much smaller scale. To raise a truckload of turkeys is around $70,000 to
$90,000, so it’s a lot to take on for a farmer.”
That cost does eventually trickle down to the consumer, too. Reese’s products, sold on Heritage Foods, range from $150-$329, depending on the size of the bird.
Shepherding his flock
In 2022, an outbreak of High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) required a depopulation of
5.4 million turkeys according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). HPAI is highly contagious in birds and can be spread from wild birds to flocks like Reese’s. When HPAI hits a flock of birds, they are required to be depopulated because of its high virality. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service monitors avian influenza and encourages bird owners to have strong biosecurity practices.
“It would be devastating if bird flu hit my flock,” he says. “I have some turkeys at other locations in case it happens, but it would take a long time to recover the work I’ve done to breed these birds to achieve the genetics I have now.”
Reese selects turkeys based on what he’s been taught from his parents and grandparents. He’s a fourth-generation poultry farmer who prides himself on selecting animals on what he deems as balance.
“It’s based on health and immunity, reproductive capability and body structure,” he says. “Those three things have to be balanced for that animal to be able to naturally mate, naturally produce and live a long life.”
Reese has pride in his work, and it shows in the end-product. His turkeys were selected as the No. 1-tasting turkey by New York Times food writers.
“The head food writer, Marian Burros, got turkeys from all over America,” he says. “She got a Bronze, a Narragansett and a Bourbon Red from me. She chose my turkeys as the best- tasting, and they were on the cover of the New York Times.”
Thinking toward the future
Reese says his appreciation of the poultry industry is why he has such a different outlook on his impact.
“I have great respect for the industry,” he says. “I think somewhere, somehow we should preserve these old genetics because the industry may need them someday.”
The problem Reese fears, who is 75, is that when he is no longer able to continue, his heritage breeds of turkeys will continue to decline in population. He doesn’t have any children to take on his life’s work, and that weighs heavy on him.
“We have hardly any breeders left in America, which is really sad,” he says. “That’s part of my fear of what’s going to happen when I can’t do it anymore. I would love to set up some type of sanctuary.”
Standing amongst Reese and his turkeys is an interesting experience. The turkeys are used to him but see anyone new as invaders. Although no visitors were scared off, they were curious creatures about a newcomer, taking note and making pecks of any shiny objects.
One turkey in particular stayed near Reese.
“I didn’t think this little girl, who I named California, was going to make it,” he says. “But here she is, and she’s pretty special. When I had a group from the Culinary Institute here, they all fell in love with her because she’s the only one who ever came up to them.”
While California may be his favorite, each turkey on his farm holds a special place in Reese’s heart.
“I have a very personal connection to the animal,” Reese says. “I think about all of the people who have mentored me over the years when I look at my birds. They are dependent on man’s intervention for their very existence, so they also have a connection to the human. I think we have an obligation to try to save them.”
Preserving heritage turkey breeds is Reese’s legacy and stands as a delicate balance between tradition and efficiency of modern poultry industry practices. Reese’s avian sanctuary is his own Thanksgiving.