Georgeann Leaming, executive chef at Latz’s by the Bay, prepares heritage turkeys Thursday in Somers Point.

Staff photo by Edward Lea

Millions of Americans with bloated stomachs and stuffed refrigerators probably didn't wake up today with an acute craving for turkey.

More likely, they’re sick of it.

But Carla Growney is already taking orders for next year’s holiday. At her home in Tabernacle Township, Burlington County, she raises free-range turkeys that people reserve more than a year in advance for their family meals.

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This is “slow food.” It takes time and care to produce, and Growney said she has found people throughout South Jersey who gladly sacrifice cost and speed for quality and peace of mind.

“It’s a movement where people care more about how it’s treated and how it’s fed than they’re concerned about the cost of it,” said Growney, owner of 7th Heaven Farm on Old Indian Mills Road.

The birds she raises are “heritage” breeds, their genes more similar to the birds raised commercially a half-century ago.

They grow slower, produce less meat and resemble their wild descendants more than the big-breasted variety that comprises more than 99 percent of the 247 million turkeys produced annually in the U.S. 

Those modern birds have been so singularly selected for their meat producing ability that they can hardly walk, cannot mate naturally and require antibiotics to survive, groups like the Heritage Turkey Foundation say.

In recent years, people have turned to the older breeds, which they say are happier and healthier than their bloated brethren.

“It is important to know they were raised with care and respect,” said Susan Travis, of Hamilton Township, one of Growney’s original customers.

Growney asks for turkey requests by February when she orders baby turkeys, or poults, from a hatchery. She raises them on her farm from March to July, and then out-sources their slaughter and preparation.

“These animals are like my pets, so bringing them to slaughter is very difficult,” said Growney, who names each of her birds.

7th Heaven Farm is one of the only commercial farms in the state that raises free-range turkeys. Specialty food stores sometimes sell the birds, which are more commonly raised outside New Jersey. Online, they can cost $70 to more than $200 for one turkey.

On Thanksgiving, Latz’s by the Bay restaurant in Somers Point served heritage turkeys it bought from a distributor in Pennsylvania. Executive Chef Georgeann Leaming said she chose heritage turkeys both for sustainability and culinary reasons.

“The flavor has just been outstanding,” she said. “You don’t have to do so much to make them taste great.”

That comes down to personal preference, though.

“My grandfather would always say that he grew them both, and it’s all in what you feed them,” said Ronny Lee, owner of Lee Turkey Farm in East Windsor Township, Mercer County.

Lee’s family has been raising turkeys for six generations. They produce about 3,000 birds a year, feeding them corn and soybeans, as opposed to grass, nuts, seeds and other foods that wild turkeys eat.

He says the steady diet he gives to his birds helps them grow quickly and provides consistently tasty meat, which he said today’s consumers demand.

“When you have turkeys out on the range, one turkey might decide it likes grasshoppers, and that totally changes the flavor,” he said.

Almost all turkey consumed in the U.S. today is of the broad-breasted white variety, a type prized because of how quickly it can grow an exceptional amount of breast meat.

Before the mass industrialization of poultry farming led to the predominance of broad-breasted whites, there were more than 10 different varieties of domesticated, commercially raised turkeys that are now referred to under the blanket term “heritage.”

They include the bourbon red, standard bronze, black Spanish, white Holland and the Jersey buff, the last a breed resulting from crossbreeding at the Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in Millville.

All of these breeds are rare. Some are endangered and near extinction. They are mainly sustained by family farmers and groups interested in conserving the “antique” varieties.

At the same time, wild turkeys have been on the rebound in New Jersey after being completely killed off in the state. There are about 22,000 wild turkeys in New Jersey, about 3,100 of which were killed this year in the limited spring and fall hunting seasons.

In terms of size, the heritage breeds are between these gangly ancestors and the broad-breasted whites. They grow to a maximum of about 22 pounds typically, larger than wild birds but nowhere near the 60 pounds that broad-breasted whites reach.

Growney has raised between 40 and 80 birds on her farm every year, depending on customer demand, since 2006.

It is a lot of work that turns little profit. The free-ranging birds are expensive to keep, even though they sell for $120 each.

But she is passionate about the product, and so are her customers.

“People have to already be a part of the movement if they want to pay $120, especially when most people are paying $30 or getting one for free at the grocery store,” she said. “These people are usually already on the bandwagon.”

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