Love for the modern grocery-store turkey must be torture. They’re bred to have breasts so large that the males can’t mount females to mate, so artificial insemination is what’s kept their genetic tradition on so many dinner plates come the end of November.
This bothered Cathy Payne. She started buying heritage breed turkeys, and reading about heritage breeds. A lot. So began her entry into a field she’s so passionate about that she’s based an entire farming operation on it, as well as an Indiegogo campaign which launched last week.
So what are heritage animals? According to Payne, they’re animal breeds that “were traditionally raised by farmers before the advent of massive-scale industrial farming. They’re raised to thrive in particular regions and using particular farming styles.” Their genetic resources make them ideal for the regions they’ve adapted to; Payne likens them to heirloom vegetables.
Three years ago Payne and her husband Jon bought 11 acres of land north of Athens, where they started raising rabbits. That farm, Broad River Pastures, is now home to two breeds of rabbits considered “threatened” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, as well as Gulf Coast sheep, which the ALBC classifies as critically threatened, and Khaki Campbell ducks.
Practicality is one reason why Payne gravitates towards heritage breeds. They thrive without as much oversight, and need fewer inputs because they’re more adept at foraging off the land. “We were doing things outdoors without a barn or big production model,” Payne says. “The types of animals that were adapted to this region and outdoor rearing were heritage breeds.”
Heritage breeds are much less susceptible to medical problems that plague more common types of animals. For instance, Gulf Coast sheep are more resistant to hoof fungal infections such as foot scald or hoof rot, a common problem in moist, warm environments like what Georgia has recently experienced. “We’ve gotten through this wet, hot summer and we don’t have a single limping sheep in the flock,” Payne says. These sheep also resist parasites such as haemonchus contortus, known as the barber pole worm, a red and white pest that thrives in wet grass and can cause anemia when ingested.
So why have heritage breeds like the Gulf Coast sheep become so rare? Blame the bottom line. “These are smaller sheep, and therefore not as productive as far as the meat end of it goes,” Payne says. “Back in the ’50s or ’60s, when de-worming medications were invented, people said ‘Well, we don’t need to keep these hearty, small sheep, we can get these big improved breeds and make more money.'” But as more and more flocks of other sheep breeds develop resistance to worm medications and require expensive care for hoof rot, revitalizing a breed that resists both takes on a new importance.
Payne frames it as a food security issue. “If you think of what happened in the 1800s with the potato famine, people starved and had to leave [Ireland] because they didn’t have a source of stable food,” Payne says. “Our modern breeds aren’t adapted to a sustainable environment, they’re adapted to very intense management that requires lots of electricity and lots of fossil fuels.”
Fostering these breeds is also a way to restore genetic heterogeneity to a national farmscape where 15 mammals and bird species make up 90 percent of livestock production, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Biodiversity is an important tenet of organic agriculture, and that extends to the animals in the barnyard. the FAO also estimates that 190 breeds have become extinct in the last 15 years, and 1,500 are considered “at risk” for extinction.
Once these extinct animals’ genes are lost, they’re lost forever. From Broad River Pastures’ website: “And at least 60 breeds of cattle, goats, horses, pigs, and poultry have been lost since 2002—in other words, one breed is being lost each month. The breeds that are being lost are suited for their local environment in ways that modern “improved” breeds will never be.”
With the Indiegogo campaign, Payne hopes to add Guinea hogs, a smaller breed of lard-style pig that dates back to Thomas Jefferson and nearly went extinct. They’re a real boon to pastures, eating snakes, insects, and mice. They also need very little grain. “If we had a shortage or prices shot through the roof, then here’s an animal that can thrive without those inputs,” Payne says. “That might someday make it more sustainable and economic to raise.” They’re also tasty; the pigs are included in Slow Food International’s U.S. Ark of Taste, “a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction,” and their smaller size is more practical for the average farm to table restaurant kitchen.
Payne also hopes the Indiegogo campaign will help pay for repairs and upgrades to farm equipment needed to handle the growth of her heritage livestock herds and flocks. Funders at various levels qualify for a slew of gifts, from hand-written thank-you notes to “I Go Hog Wild for Pastured Meat” t-shirts to Gulf Coast yarn. Additional prizes won’t be revealed until the campaign is already underway.
“We’re basically having a big sale, Payne says. “It’s a way to presell a lot of stuff in a short amount of time, and then we’ll have the seed money to get these projects done.”
There are lots of ways to support heritage breeds beyond Payne’s Indiegogo campaign. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has a directory of breeders, as well as classifieds. Seek out heritage breed meat on www.localharvest.org and support farmers conserving these animals. Check out Slow Food International’s U.S. Ark of Taste. This Thanksgiving, try a heritage turkey, goose, lamb, or pork roast. In the meantime, Payne’s Indiegogo campaign runs through Sept. 7.