Frank Reese’s turkeys can fly.
In the wild, that’s nothing special, but on a turkey farm, it’s a rare sight to see. Reese’s birds also run, jump, dig holes, roll in the dirt, eat bugs and roost just like turkeys have in America for more than 200 years.
His Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Black, White Holland and Bourbon Red turkeys and Plymouth Barred Rock, New Hampshire, Cornish, Silver Laced Wyandotte and Jersey Giant chickens are standard-bred, otherwise known as heritage breed, birds.
A fourth-generation Kansas farmer, Reese’s grandparents settled in Salina, Kansas, right after the Civil War, and he can trace his family’s turkeys’ bloodlines back to 1917.
He’s raised turkeys and chickens on range his whole life, the better part of 60 years, first on the family farm in Salina and, later, on his own land in Lindsborg, Kansas, at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch.
“I just enjoyed chickens and turkeys, even as a little kid,” he says. “At a young age, instead of being sent to the milk house or the cow barn, I was sent to the chicken house.
“Back then, there wasn’t anything other than what they call heritage today – and I hate that word. They’ve been called standard bred since 1873.”
By the time Reese was in high school, he was showing birds through the Four-H Club and at the Kansas State Fair.
“That’s where I began to learn a lot about poultry and how to raise poultry for market, and I was very successful at it,” he says. “When I went to a show, I went to win.
“But back then we didn’t just raise birds to be pretty or to win shows, they also had to be marketable – [to] be able to produce eggs, to produce meat.”
Early in his career, Reese met legendary turkey farmer Norman Kardash, known to folks in the industry as the Turkey Man, who quickly became his hero and mentor.
Kardash could trace his turkeys’ genetic lines back to the 19th century and was particularly known for his award-winning Narragansetts. When Kardash passed away in 2003, he left his birds and breeding legacy to Reese.
Reese has a slight country drawl and speaks in a measured and quiet way.
You’d never guess the modest Kansas farmer and his birds have made multiple appearances on The Martha Stewart Show, teaching Americans about standard-bred poultry and how to properly cook it at home, or have been the focus of farm dinners hosted by chefs Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, and Mario Batali in New York City.
Several years ago, Reese’s farm was profiled in writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book about industrial farming and animal welfare, Eating Animals, and in the past three years, filmmakers adapting the book have visited Good Shepherd more than a dozen times.
“People have been very good to me,” Reese says of the attention.
When he describes his turkeys and chickens, it’s with the pride and protectiveness of a father, but also the respect of a farmer who appreciates not just their beauty and personalities, but also the bounty they bestow.
Reese cares deeply about his animals, and part of caring about something involves fear and concern.
All domesticated turkeys are descendents of the Standard Bronze, or “the king,” as Reese describes them, which are native to North and Central America.
Feathers on the backs of Bronze toms (male turkeys) and hens (female turkeys) include three bands: white, black and iridescent bronze.
Their feathers glisten a brilliant shock of penny copper from their shoulders down their backs. Hens have distinctive lacing, or a white pattern on each feather, covering their breasts.
When you imagine a turkey, you’re probably picturing the Bronze.
From there, varieties like Narragansett, with its silver coloring, black and white frosted wings and golden tail, and Bourbon Red, with its chestnut wings and white tail, were selected and bred for their intricate and beautiful colorings.
Although beautiful, the varying color patterns have no effect on the meat – and Reese says if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, it’s “a bunch of hooey.”
Instead, he says texture and flavor are determined by how the farmer bred the animal, what he fed the animal and how he treated the animal.
“My Bronze turkeys look like they look, taste like they taste and have those nice big round breasts because I’ve selected for that [in breeding], not because they’re Bronzes.”
Preserving and protecting heritage breeds is only half of Reese’s work.
He’s also passionate about maintaining traditional farming practices – what was once the only way of doing things in the poultry industry but has, in the past 50 years, slowly faded away.
Reese describes three essentials to raising standard-bred turkeys: birds are naturally mating, which means farmers don’t have to – and don’t choose to – artificially inseminate hens for reproduction.
Birds are allowed a natural rate of growth for healthy skeletal and muscle development; and there is longevity, which means that birds not killed for meat will live long lives on the farm and be used for breeding.
These tenets also form the mission of the American Poultry Association (APA), which is the only organization that can issue certifications for standard-bred turkeys.
Reese has been a member since the 1950s and was the first poultry farmer to be certified by the APA.
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