One man’s mission is to save the turkey by opening a school for fowl
Frank Reese agrees with Benjamin Franklin that turkeys are not only interesting, they are special.
For several decades, he made it his life’s mission to save the non-commercialized bird. At his farm in Lindsborg, he wants to build a first-of-its-kind heritage fowl research center — the Good Shepherd Conservancy.
Along with being one of the largest breeders of standard bred heritage or heirloom poultry in the country, Reese is an expert on these endangered species. At 72, he wants to make sure his and others’ research is saved and the rare fowl are given the opportunity to thrive.
“In every family there is pride of lineage. This is no different for poultry,” Reese said.
What is a heritage bird?
A heritage turkey mates naturally, has a slow growth rate, thrives outdoors and can live a long life. All of Reese’s turkeys are heritage birds and are American Poultry Association certified. These turkeys are antibiotic free and free range all the way from hatchling to adulthood.
“My dad always said there’s no better antibiotic than the sun,” Reese said. “It’s when you confine them is when you have disease problems.”
By promoting strong genetics, humane handling and natural mating, Reese is promoting the turkey’s lineage.
“Heritage genetics are the foundation for humanely raised livestock,” Reese said.
On his ranch, Good Shepard Poultry Ranch, Reese raises more than 10,000 heritage turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese.
Selling to keep the lines going
Reese sells his birds through Heritage Foods. Heritage Foods in turn sells the turkeys by mail or wholesale to stores across the country. Primble Meats, just outside Kansas City, Mo., is the closest retail shop for Kansans.
Reese painstakingly separates the turkeys before breeding season. Once the poults are born, he makes sure they thrive, tending to them and their parents. By late fall, he must separate out the breeders and send the other 10,000 or so to market.
“He has some of the best birds in the country,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy in North Carolina. “It takes an investment to be able to produce enough birds to make a good selection.”
The Livestock Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect livestock and poultry from extinction.
“From the genetic standpoint, it's vital to keep all species as genetically diverse as possible,“ said Scott Beyer, Ph.D., extension poultry specialist at Kansas State University. ”Having a diverse gene pool is vital to keeping a 'bank' of the traits that may be useful for survivability of the species in future.“
By continually breeding and keeping the genetic lines going, Reese is preserving the bird’s ancestry. He usually holds back about 2,000 turkeys for breeding. He culls the toms and hens and looks for ones with the best characteristics.
“I want them (my heritage turkeys) to be both beautiful and marketable,” Reese said.
Preserving the breeds
Along with breeding his prized fowl, Reese, a nurse anesthetist and former army nurse, has set up a nonprofit — Good Shepherd Conservancy — aimed at helping to preserve his cherished birds. He hopes to build a center that will teach the next generation about these special animals.
The plans are to have a culinary school attached to the education and research center. With help from foundations, he has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for this venture. But he needs to double that amount to save several of the birds from extinction, increase biodiversity and create the center.
“He is an irreplaceable resource of expertise breeding wisdom,” Beranger said. “We need a lot more breeders.”
Many of the heritage turkeys are on the critically endangered list. Reese is afraid without this center, many breeds will disappear. He can trace the Kansas lineage back to 1917 for what he calls the king of all turkeys — the Standard Bronze.
“My whole mission is genetic preservation and to keep them from extinction,” Reese said.
Reese and his animals were featured in the film “Eating Animals.”
Thanksgiving and consumption
According to the USDA, the annual national turkey consumption remains steady at about five billion pounds per year, amounting to more than 220 million birds. The states producing the most turkeys are Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas.
The number of heritage turkey sold is minuscule in comparison to industrial fowl.
“All industrial chickens and turkeys are dead end animals. They cannot reproduce,” Reese said.
Heritage turkeys have a slow growth rate, reaching a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, allowing them to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass. These birds include Bourbon Red, Narraganset, Solid Grey Slate, Solid Black, Royal Palm, Beltsville, White Holland and Jersey Buff. Many are named after where they originated.
“Unfortunately, part of the decrease in heritage production is simply due to lack of economic opportunities for small farms in rural areas, which has led to decreased rural population and thus fewer farms to keep heritage products,” Beyer said. “It has been said, that in order to save heritage turkey breeds, we need to include them as a food source, for without value other than shows, we will continue to lose our genetic diversity in all of our crops.”
For the love of a bird
Reese, a fourth-generation farmer, grew up on a farm close to Salina.
“We had chickens, pigs, goats, cattle and crops — mostly wheat and milo,” Reese said. “My job was to take the turkeys to the milo field. They’d pull all the grasshoppers off the fields. Then I’d walk them home.”
Reese said, back then, everyone had turkey. But for Reese, his love of the animal went further.
“My first story I wrote in first grade was ’Me and my Turkeys,’ ” he said.
Reese wrote this story more than 60 years ago while he sat at an old wooden desk in a one-room country schoolhouse in north Salina.
“I have a lifelong connection to these birds,” Reese said. “When I see a Bronze Turkey, I think of all the great turkey breeders I’ve known.”
To find out more about how to donate to the nonprofit center, go to goodshepherdconversancy.org.