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Article from The Fresno Bee News Paper


Too Good to Eat?

Valley-raised heritage turkeys are rare but face a familiar fate.

(Updated Sunday, November 16, 2003, 5:38 AM)

A Kerman ranch is gobbling a lot of attention as one of three in California where rare and colorful heritage turkeys are being raised for Thanksgiving plates this year.

"We don't want to lose these things," said Rick Pitman as he and wife Mary walked among the birds who strutted their stuff and fanned their feathers as if they were richly proud of their heirloom breeding.

The common ancestor for all heritage breeds is the wild turkey, a bird native to the United States. Cross-breeding with other varieties led to the heritage turkeys that once numbered in the millions and were eaten by Americans generations ago. But their numbers have dropped to near-extinction levels, one reason Pitman's comment about losing the birds is double-edged:

He literally had to put fencing over the yard where the 1,000 special turkeys are kept. Unlike the commercial, mass-produced Broadbreasted White turkeys, these gobblers can -- and do -- fly.

And the Pitmans are helping save the birds from extinction by raising them to be eaten. While that may seem a contradiction, the project involving Slow Food USA and other organizations is in its second year of boosting the numbers of these nearly extinct turkeys by hooking up with about 45 farmers nationwide.

"With livestock, the best way to save them is to give them a job, and their job is to be on somebody's table for Thanksgiving dinner," said Evan Kleiman, who leads the Southern California chapter of Slow Food USA.

On Thanksgiving, turkeys from the Pitman farm will be served at Angeli Caffein in Los Angeles, where Kleiman is owner and chef.

Pitman turkeys also will be on the holiday menu at nationally renowned Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant where Alice Waters is chef and owner. Waters is vice president of Slow Food International.

The Pitmans and members of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to saving the planet's cultural diversity and the savoring of food, pointed to sharp differ-

ences between the varieties of birds eaten decades ago and today's more commonly consumed Broadbreasted White.

Mary Pitman said a friend terms the white "the Dolly Parton of turkeys," prized for its amount of breast meat. But that variety, engineered for size, cannot fly and has difficulty breeding.

He said the interest in preserving the old varieties comes in part because today's turkeys are "being inbred." He said the loss of a rich gene pool could even ultimately threaten the continued existence of the Broadbreasted White.

The Pitmans have Narragansett and Bourbon Red varieties of heritage birds they are raising this year for the first time.

Kleiman said the meat from the heritage turkeys, which are raised organically and in a free-range setting, "has a fuller flavor without being gamey because they are allowed to walk around and have a life."

Their life is about 8 months -- at least twice the normal life of the mass-produced white turkey.

"The farmers who agreed to raise these turkeys are to be commended for going out on a ledge and taking a risk without knowing if there would be a market,"

Kleiman said.

Turns out there is a strong market, with so much demand that most of the heritage birds processed this year by the Pitmans have flown off the shelves at stores that include Catalano's Market in Fresno, Bristol Farms groceries in Southern California and Mollie Stone's Markets in the Bay Area. They also were sold through Slow Food distribution centers in California.

The best bet for Valley shoppers looking for one of the turkeys is to place an order months before Thanksgiving through Mary's Free Range and Organic Turkeys on the Web at www.marysturkeys.com or through Slow Food USA. at www.slowfoodusa.org.

"We have an allotment of 25 of the turkeys," said Ralph Rogers, manager of the meat department at Catalano's. "We have 19 orders already, and one of those is from San Jose. That person is driving over to pick up their turkey."

Rogers said the heritage turkeys are selling for about $5 a pound, compared to an organic Broadbreasted White turkeys at about $3.50 a pound, a free-range non-organic turkey for about $2 and a conventional turkey at under $1.

Because the heritage turkeys are smaller, weighing no more than about 12 pounds, Mary Pitman said she is providing an additional free-range turkey at no added cost for buyers of the birds.

Mary Pitman often jokes that on the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, "I got a turkey named after me. Some women get diamonds. I got Mary's Free Range turkeys."

The Pitmans paid $10 for each of the heritage turkey poults, the baby birds, Mary Pitman said. Poults for the Broadbreasted White cost $1 each.

The Pitmans said their first venture in raising the special turkeys will not be a moneymaker this year, but they said they have garnered considerable attention by adding the birds.

Rick Pitman said other California ranchers raising the turkeys this year include Willie Benedetti in Santa Rosa and Sylvia Mavalwalla in Petaluma.

The Pitmans have spent years carving out various niches for a family poultry operation that had its beginnings a half-century ago with Rick Pitman's parents.

Partly because Mary Pitman has battled food allergies and has a heightened awareness of the need for healthy food products, the couple started raising free-range turkeys, both organic and non-

organic, without the use of antibiotics.

In five years, the Pitmans' production of free-range turkeys has grown from 5,000 to about 80,000.

The Pitmans have ranches in the Fresno area and process poultry at their Sanger plant.

They also have reached out to various ethnic markets and recently have started exploring the Muslim market for poultry slaughtered according to Islamic rites.

Mary Pitman maintains a help hot line for those preparing their Thanksgiving turkeys, answering each call herself, even on Thanksgiving Day.

"People call and say, 'You're not really Mary, are you?' " Mary Pitman said. "They think we hire people to say they're Mary.

" 'No,' I tell them. 'It's me. I'm Mary.' "

Whatever the type of turkey and whether it cost $60 or $6, her key bit of advice is: "Use a thermometer, and do not overcook it."

The reporter can be reached at dpollock@fresnobee.com or 441-6364.