All kinds of rare and unusual livestock roam around the Sugarman family’s backyard farm in Olivenhain. But this time of year, the heritage turkeys command the most attention.
Heritage turkeys, which resemble their wild ancestors more than modern breeds, were once on the verge of extinction. But they’ve made a comeback in the past few decades, thanks to foodies and preservationists, even though they usually cost $5 to $7 more per pound than supermarket turkeys.
For the past three years, Elizabeth and Shawn, along with their two kids Samuel and Sissy, have raised and sold heritage turkeys. Their main goal: allow their turkeys to live a more active life than their commercial counterparts.
“They’re treated humanely and cared for throughout their lives,” said Elizabeth.
Unlike at many mass commercial farms, the Sugarmans’ turkeys have room to roam around and fly. The added space lets them grow bigger and stronger than the broad-breasted whites, the most common turkey variety.
“These are like the athletes of the turkey world, and those are the couch potatoes,” 13-year-old Sissy said. Because heritage turkeys are more muscular and have bigger drumsticks, she said, some prefer the taste.
Still, the birds are uncommon.
An estimated 240 million turkeys will be produced in the U.S. this year, with heritage birds making up a small fraction, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Services.
Commercial turkeys are the norm because they mature in half the time and don’t demand as much food. Hence, they cost less. But after a few months, they get so big that they can hardly walk, let alone reproduce naturally, according to the American Livestock Conservancy’s website.
“It’s not sustainable on any level,” Elizabeth said.
The conservancy says to officially be considered a heritage turkey, the bird must live comfortably outdoors, grow slowly enough to develop a strong skeletal structure and it can’t be artificially inseminated.
The Sugarmans and agriculture groups also say the heritage turkeys preserve genetic diversity.
“Let’s say there’s some kind of virus,” Sissy said. “If we don’t have biodiversity, all the turkeys could be wiped out at once.” For the same reason, their small farm also has “baby doll” sheep, Oberhasli goats and other rare livestock.
In 2011, the San Diego chapter of Slow Food USA, a group that has promoted heritage turkeys as an alternative, asked the family to raise turkeys to be part of a bi-annual Thanksgiving dinner. And the Sugarmans have raised them in off years, too.
“We really expected them to be like big chickens,” Sissy Sugarman said. “And they’re really different. Turkeys are way brighter and have way more personality. Kind of like a dog.”
Sissy noted the turkeys are generally friendly and easy to look after, though sometimes they’ll fly onto the family’s tennis courts or peck on the living room doors leading to the backyard.
“They’re curious about everything,” she said.
In 2012, they raised 15, their biggest group yet. This year, though, the Sugarmans decided to go with four since they’re busy with their other animals.
The farm, Elizabeth said, is more about education and community enjoyment than making money.
Cindy Brandenburg leads the Olivenhain Valley 4-H Club, which teaches children leadership skills and how to raise livestock. Brandenburg believes the heritage birds are gaining in popularity, but she doesn’t know many local farmers who are raising them.
She said heritage turkeys are part of a larger trend of residents taking an interest in where their food comes from.
“People have been disconnected from the source of their food,” Brandenburg said. “It’s getting back to the old ways of self-sufficiency.”
Elizabeth echoed Brandenburg’s sentiments, saying those who buy the heritage turkeys appreciate knowing they were raised humanely. The Sugarmans have even hosted turkey-picking gatherings where families and would-be buyers can learn more about the birds.
“People then know this was a living animal,” Elizabeth said. “They know it lived here, and they know it took some sacrifice for it to be on their table. I think it raises awareness about that significance, whether you’re a meat eater or vegetarian or vegan.”
People also appreciate the history of the heritage turkeys.
“These were the turkeys that were there when the Pilgrims came to Plymouth,” Sissy said.
After watching over them for months, the day inevitably comes when the turkeys are taken to a small processing center in Valley Center.
“They’re harvested very respectfully,” Elizabeth said, noting they’re taken to the center in a horse trailer with plenty of space. “Once there, it’s quick.”
Elizabeth and Sissy said it’s sometimes tough saying goodbye after spending so much time raising them. But they added it helps knowing the turkeys were treated with care.
“We gave them a good life,” Elizabeth said.
To learn more about the farm, visit sugarsweetfarm.com.