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Heirloom turkeys are making a comeback

Nov./Dec. 2005 California Country magazine

Tim Diestel is getting heirloom turkeys on the table for Thanksgiving.



As fall wraps itself around the Sierra foothills, Tuolumne County turkey producer Tim Diestel crosses his fingers. With his family's more than 50 years in the turkey business, he knows the hurdles that have to be cleared to get hundreds of thousands of fresh, whole-body turkeys from his family's ranch near Sonora to holiday tables throughout California and the West.

"We prepare for Thanksgiving all year," Diestel said. "It's always a relief when the day comes. It's exciting and fun, but I take producing the centerpiece of thousands of people's holiday celebrations very seriously. Turkey is a big part of what the holiday is about and I want our birds to be perfect, every one of them."

But, can there be anything better than perfect?

Diestel thinks so, and as millions of Thanksgiving dinner tables across America feature a deliciously familiar menu, a growing number of plates will be heaped with history in the form of heirloom turkey.

Heirloom turkeys are varieties that once were widely raised, but have since gone out of commercial favor. These "retro" birds are sometimes referred to with different names and represent a small, but growing movement in California.

"They're very pretty to look at and a piece of American history," Diestel said. He now raises as many as 8,000 heirloom turkeys on his ranch.

"We raise them as close to a wild bird as we possibly can," he said. "We think this appeals to a certain group of consumers who want the cleanest, purest, most natural product available."

Diestel is the third generation of his family to raise turkeys in the foothills near Sonora. While the vast majority of their flocks are the traditional white varieties, this is the third year they've raised a black-feathered bird they call an American Heirloom, a breed that dates back to about 1930.

Diestel said he expects to raise up to 12,000 American Heirlooms next year. Because of their limited supply and strong demand, Heirloom turkey costs more, with retail prices occasionally reaching $7 a pound.

The birds provide more than a marketing niche. They offer a touch of nostalgia for Tim's dad Jack, who has retired but loves to be with his family and observe the action on the ranch.

"When I see these turkeys, I think of my childhood," Jack Diestel said. "My uncle used to raise turkeys and I used to work with him when I was going to high school. They're kind of part of us!"

Diestel turkey is a big seller among discriminating consumers and chefs, who rave about its consistently superior quality and true turkey flavor. Tim Diestel attributed customer satisfaction to their ranching style, which includes a free-range environment for the birds.

"We bill this as the home of the happy turkey," he said. "These turkeys truly have an exceptional life. If I were a turkey, I would want to live here. It's just as clean and nice an environment as you could possibly want."

In a state known for its huge agricultural economy, the California poultry industry has an enormous impact. The Thanksgiving bird included, California farmers and ranchers report poultry sales in excess of $2.5 billion a year, making poultry one of the state's leading agricultural products.

California poultry farms provide jobs for more than 25,000 people throughout the state and indirectly to tens of thousands more in affiliated businesses, including trucking and feed suppliers.

California produced 17.3 million turkeys in 2003 (most recent year available), valued at $158 million, and the Golden State ranks sixth in the nation in turkey production.

Consumers are showing an increased interest in fresh, free-range turkey's. Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said. "I think this increased demand is because the majority of people in California look for California-grown turkeys first. We've kind of figured out the marketplace--and we have innovative growers who are bringing the highest quality and surprisingly innovative poultry products to consumers."

Mattos suggests that consumers who want fresh and specialty turkey for the holidays or other special occasions should talk to the experts at local supermarkets well in advance of the date the poultry will be needed.

Diestel said he doesn't have a big sales staff to help market the half million turkeys the ranch produces. They supervise the entire process, from selecting the chicks to marketing and preparing shipments to go on company-owned trucks, particularly as Thanksgiving Day draws near.

"There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that have to be put in place to get our turkeys to market," he said. "Thanksgiving represents the single largest meat purchase of the year for most markets. With fresh turkey, it's all last minute and it has to be perfect."

The Diestels have their own Thanksgiving tradition--gathering family and roasting the biggest bird on the ranch, which can tip the scales at up to 60 pounds!

"Thanksgiving is just the absolute food day of the year in the United States, in my opinion," Diestel said. "It's a big family gathering and the turkey is the centerpiece of the table. It's very important for us to get it perfect for that family. There's a lot of satisfaction in doing that. It's really a gratifying holiday for us."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by kcampbell@cfbf.com.)


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