Frank Reese: A Good Shepherd for Turkeys

At the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, Frank Reese holds one of his prized heritage birds"I don't remember not loving turkeys," said Frank Reese, owner of the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch. "My father told me that when I was real little, 3 years old, I begged to see the turkeys before anything else at the State Fair." While fellow students wrote with pride and affection about the family dog, Reese's first grade school essay was entitled "Me and My Turkeys."

"I fed and watered the poultry, gathered eggs in the mornings and evenings, and, at dawn, let the birds out of the barn where they roosted overnight," Frank said of his childhood on his family's farm in Kansas. Come July and August, he recalls, "Dad had me walk the turkeys to the fields so they could eat the grasshoppers that came when it was hot and dry." The Reeses never needed to spray crops for bugs.

The healthy skeletal structure and luxurious feathering of this standard-bred tom turkey gives him a regal appearanceToday, on his own Lindsborg, Kan. pastures, Frank breeds old lines of standard-bred turkeys like the ones he knew growing up. His turkeys are derived from birds he received from breeders of the 1920s and 1930s. Norman Kardosh, known as "The Turkey Man" of the poultry world, became Frank's mentor and friend years ago, passing on his wealth of knowledge and strains of Narragansett, Blacks and Slates. In time, Frank received Bourbon Reds from Sadie Lloyd and Bronze turkeys from Cecil Moore. The lines he conserves date from the 1800s. "These strains are the oldest continuous strains of standard-bred turkeys in North America," he said. The birds are born of exacting breeding programs that have preserved the genetic purity of their ancestors. The offspring of Frank's breeding flocks are pasture-raised by a network of family farmers handpicked for their commitment to conscientious husbandry.

With the shelter of shrubs close at hand, turkeys spend much of their time on the  ranch's pastures foraging for food Marion Burros, a writer for The New York Times, and Heritage Foods USA, a marketing company that specializes in products from independent family farmers raising heritage breeds under good welfare conditions, first brought Frank and his farmer colleagues into the public spotlight. Heritage birds, they say, taste the way turkeys used to taste before factory breeding and raising "denatured" the birds.

Before my visit to Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, I'd known turkeys only from a distance-from the viewpoint of a child riding in the family car past flocks of large white birds raised outdoors along Minnesota country roads. Local farmers let their turkeys roam on the range, supplying small, movable wooden shelters to protect them in bad weather. Today, most of those farms have contracted with agribusiness giants and confine their birds inside permanent buildings year-round. Minnesota now raises more turkeys than any other state.

Turkeys enjoy grazing on the Williamson farm, part of Frank's networkAt Good Shepherd, Frank placed a turkey in my arms. She was robust and feather-soft and too heavy to hold for more than a minute. His turkeys crowded close to me and followed my path, and I marveled at how sturdy and stately they appeared while parading from place to place. Nearby, other birds dust-bathed in soft dirt under the pines, foraged for food in the pasture or nested in straw-lined boxes. There is ample land for them, and Frank rotates the pastures to maintain healthy soils and vegetation.

Frank's turkeys only lay eggs in season and are never force-molted. Poults are introduced to the outdoors through sunlit porches attached to their shelter.

Outdoor and indoor nestboxes are provided to hensAt 8 to 10 weeks of age, they are moved to pastures where they graze, forage and fly about during the day, then settle onto roosts under the shelter of a canopy at night. Unlike their factory-farmed counterparts, the birds are never de-beaked or de-clawed. Nor are their skeletal systems deformed from breeding programs that select for fast growth and enhanced breast meat. "My mission is the preservation of these old breeds. It is a labor of love," he said.

From an animal welfare standpoint, the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch is impressive. Only standard-bred turkeys—popularly known as "heritage" birds—are guaranteed to have a Turkeys are omnivores, so the tall grass pasture provides a rich environment for the birds food searchesnormal skeletal structure, growth rate, metabolic system and lifespan. The stressful process of artificial insemination is not required because they still can mate naturally, unlike "modern" turkeys who are so disabled that they could not reproduce and survive as a species without human intervention.

Under the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) husbandry standards program, turkeys must meet the American Poultry Association definition of standard-bred or the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy definition of heritage birds (which has recently been reinforced by the US Department of Agriculture in its rendering of the word "heritage" for labeling and marketing turkeys). This requirement prevents disabilities that result from selection for unnaturally rapid weight gain and other production-related characteristics. All species must be given the opportunity to engage in positive social interactions and perform instinctive behaviors essential to their health and well-being. After witnessing these principles at work on Reese's farm, AWI is pleased to endorse Frank and the network of farms who share his mission.

For more information, please visit these websites:
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: www.albc-usa.org

American Poultry Association: www.amerpoultryassn.com

Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch: www.reeseturkeys.com

Heritage Foods USA: www.heritagefoodsusa.com

Article and photos by Diane Halverson