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Of course, it's the season for turkey. Two hundred and seventy-two million turkeys raised in the U.S. this year, according to the USDA. Many of the birds will, of course, end up on dinner plates during the upcoming holidays. Modern agriculture has transformed the commercially produced Turkey. From 1986 to 2006, the weight of the average turkey jumped from 20 pounds to more than 28. Now, this agricultural efficiency comes at a cost. The turkey gene pool is narrowing dramatically.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on one Kansas farmer who worries that traditional breeds of turkey are on the verge of disappearing.
(Soundbite of turkeys clucking)
JASON BEAUBIEN: Frank Reece raises heritage turkeys - breeds of turkeys that have been around since the 1800s. In his barn, dark birds with broad plumes(ph) and tail feathers cluster around him.
Mr. FRANK REECE (Turkey Raiser): Those are the old standard ones. That's the original Thanksgiving turkey. That's the turkey that fed America from 1850 to 1950.
BEAUBIEN: But these birds, which resemble those the pilgrims who shared with the Indians at Plymouth Rock, will make up less than 1 percent of the turkeys served this Thanksgiving.
Commercial production of a single breed - the broad-breasted white - has been so successful in recent decades that it shoved the traditional turkey almost into oblivion. In fact, only a few dozen farmers in the country still raise the traditional breeds.
But Frank Reece's family has been raising them for generations.
Mr. REECE: The two hens over there are fighting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. REECE: So they're making all that noise. Every once in a while it isn't just the boys that fight. Every once in a while, the girls get after it and start beating each other out.
BEAUBIEN: In 1874, the American Poultry Association set standards of perfection for the various breeds of domesticated turkeys. Reece meticulously breeds his birds to keep their genetic lines pure and adhere to this ancient standard. Chefs raved about the results. In 2001, the New York Times did a cook off between some of his turkeys and commercially raised ones. All of them had richer, fuller flavor, the Times wrote, especially in the dark meat, and were juicier than the industrial birds. But that taste comes with a price tag, four to five times higher than a standard supermarket turkey.
(Soundbite of turkeys)
Mr. REECE: Because we don't confine them, and they're free to run into pastures. That also means that it takes a lot more land, a lot more space. So that's part of the reason why our turkeys are expensive.
BEAUBIEN: This year, he produced about 14,000 birds, but the 59-year-old Reece says he doesn't raise them to make money. In fact, he works as a nurse full time to help pay his bills.
Reece is on a crusade to save the traditional turkey at the same time that the broad-breasted white has come to completely dominate the market. Broad-breasted whites have been genetically selected, have short legs, huge chests laden with breast meat and white feathers that won't discolor their skin. They're so oddly shaped that they can no longer breathe and reproduce now solely to artificial insemination. They also grow twice as fast as traditional turkeys.
Mr. REECE: It is genetic engineering at its best, and the turkey industry has done an excellent job of doing it. But they paid a price for that, you know. The price is the bird can no longer live a long time, it can't breathe on its own, it can't fly anymore, but it grows fast and produced a cheap meat.
BEAUBIEN: Dr. Scott Bayer, an extension poultry specialist at Kansas State University, says commercial turkey farms have become incredibly efficient.
Dr. SCOTT BAYER (Extension Poultry Specialist, Kansas State University): Consumers will always want the best quality product at the lowest possible price. So that's what the commercial industry has successfully done.
BEAUBIEN: Bayer is concerned though about the lack of diversity in the nation's turkey gene pool. The millions of broad-breasted whites in the U.S. come from only a few hundred original birds, and the majority of the commercial breeding stock has been controlled for decades by three companies. Bayer says if there was an avian flu outbreak or some other problem with the highly engineered birds…
Dr. BAYER: We would like to have turkey genes in the banks, so to speak. We'd like to be able to go back and either recreate the bird in a different way or save the bird that we have.
BEAUBIEN: There are only a handful of turkey breeds, and Bayer says some breeds only exist in large numbers on a few farms. And some of those farms are adjacent to one another.
Dr. BAYER: So there's the danger that a single avian-influenza outbreak in certain key areas could actually wipe out an entire genetic line of turkeys.
BEAUBIEN: And like Bayer, Frank Reece worries about bird flu - in addition to small-scale turkey farmers retire, passed away or go out of business, Reece says he's made it his mission to make sure America's traditional breeds of turkeys don't die out with them.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.
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