It’s not an unusual question when talking to fellow ag folks. It’s something often misunderstood by potential customers. It’s not even in the knowledge of those railing against “factory farms” and condemning all production.
Why heritage breeds? The modern large white breasted turkey can produce meat much more efficiently, more consistently, than a Bourbon Red or Midget White or Royal Palm. The modern Holstein is no question without equal for her milk production that raises the bar every generation. The commercially popular breeds across the species spectrum do what they do better than the breeds we use – in their system. So why persist with breeds that will be extinct without intervention?
Because these breeds are the definition of food choices. It’s true that in a commercial barn, with automated systems of water and feed the modern “industrial” bred turkey will produce a Thanksgiving bird bigger, and cheaper, than ours. The key point is in that situation. Outside, in a non confinement situation, there are other factors at play. We don’t inseminate birds as our birds can breed naturally.
Our chickens are eager to dig and if feed isn’t delivered at 5:01 they dig for missed scraps. Our rabbits can make use of hay better than efficient, modern lines…and right now hay is $25-30 for a large bale, the price of but 100 pounds of pellets. Nutritionally,they need pellets too but using less is good.
For us, these qualities are also a measure of efficient. They offer a specialist of survival, of outdoor characteristics that may not be needed by modern large scale farms, but would be a shame to lose completely. The food choices provided by these breeds support their existence.
These are breeds developed for small farm situations. They provide different visual characteristics as well as, arguably, invisible ones. For example, while most rabbit is described as nearly tasteless similar to chicken, ours often has a hint of pork taste. It lends itself to spicy dishes, where the lean meat and spices are a heart healthy meal.
The animals alone aren’t the only traditional option. Heirloom plants also offer different characteristics than found at the grocery store. Combining that tradition and modern can be a challenge, but we feel conservation is important for food choices. We never know, also,when some characteristics may be needed.
Like farms,these heirlooms have their own uses and solutions. We hope folks will continue to embrace them, so they don’t end up like the Jersey hog, Narragansett horse or Irish Grazier hogs. You see, there are no more of them. Now, as many want hogs back outside, those breeds are gone. The Jersey hog it’s believed was absorbed into the Duroc breed.
Our Delaware chicken, too, was a successful crossbred breed. In the 1950s they were crossed on New Hampshires to produce the broiler of choice for meat chickens. When the focus shifted to Cornish cross broilers for the larger breast white meat Americans wanted, it nearly became the end of the Delaware. Today fewer than 1,000 Delawares remain, in less than 7 flocks. A storm or other disaster could spell the end of a flock. They’re kept alive in small situations like ours. The numbers are low, but Delawares are twice the numbers of the Midget White – just 500 remain. When people say they’ve never seen turkeys like ours, we smile and nod – and know that even small flocks are important when numbers are so low. Additionally, these are uniquely American breeds so the global population isn’t any larger.
Does it matter if the Beltsville Small turkey or Milking Shorthorn or American Chinchilla rabbit becomes extinct? After all, there are other turkeys, cattle and rabbits – what difference does it make. If they can’t adapt end it. What if someday the adaptation is to their domain…and they’re gone?
Using a screwdriver for a hammer usually doesn’t make sense. It might be what’s on hand but it’s not the right tool for the job. The rare breeds are the right tools for the job of small farm food choices. Each customer contributes to their survival. They’re a living, breathing connection to history that would be precious if an inanimate object.
Many of these heirlooms were kept by early American presidents. For many reasons, we think they still have a place today.