For heritage turkeys, it's fight or flight time

It's the enlightened farmer's dilemma: After saving heritage turkeys from extinction and giving them a fabulous free-range lifestyle that their too-fat-to-walk feedlot cousins can only dream of, how do you convince the birds it's time to give it all up for Thanksgiving?

Robin Way of Rumbleway Farm in Conawingo resorts to the "sneak attack." She springs it just as the birds settle down for the night.

"As soon as the sun goes down, we get our trailer ready and go out in the field and snatch them off their roost," she said.

Old-fashioned breeds of turkey may be coming back to the Thanksgiving menu, but not without a fight.

The carnivore's answer to the heirloom tomato, heritage turkeys are said to taste better than the ordinary supermarket variety, pack more nutrition, and live healthier, more natural lives than industrially farmed Broad-Breasted Whites, which are bred to grow so chesty and fat that they can't mate and can barely move. With showy, dark plumage and lyrical names like Bourbon Red and Narragansett, these venerable old birds alight on the holiday buffet like a $6-per-pound answer to the modern food-fretter's prayer.

Unless you happen to be in the business of raising and dispatching them.

Because heritage turkeys not only move but fly, are raised with beaks and claws intact, and have denser bones and darker feathers, they're tougher for farmers and butchers to handle than conventional birds.

Think it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken? Try wrangling heritage turkeys.

"We've chased them all around the barn roof before; it's pretty funny," said Julie Bolton, owner of Groff's Content Farm near Thurmont. "They like to roost up high at night. They have all those old basic instincts."

There's no need for speed and stealth when it comes to docile white birds, which can be easily herded up ramps and into trailers bound for the butcher.

Even after they've been rounded up, old-fashioned birds are such a challenge to process that Tom Reynolds, who raises and butchers turkeys under the name Farmer Tom's in Reisterstown, has started charging extra: $10 apiece, compared to $7.50 for conventional birds.

"When you grab a domesticated turkey by the feet and let his head hang down, he can't get his head up. He's so heavy breasted, he just can't get up," Reynolds said. "You can grab a heritage bird by the feet and hold your arm straight out, he flaps all the way around and pecks you on the hand. ... They have a beak like an eagle. They're scratching and pecking. I've got the battle scars to show you."

Those injuries came on top of the indignity of having to chase the birds around the abattoir. Several got loose in the last week when a farmer took his flock in.

"He brought us 20 birds, and three of them got loose before we even started processing," Reynolds said. "We got them gathered back up, then five more got loose. A dog tackled one. ... It was like a Wild West show."

That's something he'd never have to do with conventional white birds, which aren't the least bit flighty.

"I can open the door and they'll go nowhere," Reynolds said. "Even if one gets out, they'll stay close. If you give a heritage bird a crack to fly though, they're over the barn, they're across the field."

The natural farming philosophy of those who raise heritage birds can give the birds a leg up on their keepers.

Farmers attracted to heritage birds tend to be the sustainable sort, tuned into animal happiness and environmental issues. So the birds are raised on pasture, without the routine use of weight-boosting antibiotics, grazing on an omega-3-rich buffet of bugs and grass thought to enhance the nutritional value of the meat. That high-minded agricultural mission leads some heritage turkey growers to opt against clipping their birds' wings.

"We've certainly thought about [clipping]," said Bolton, the Groff's Content owner. "I just feel really bad because they can't fly, and they like to fly. It seems like something they should be able to do."

Some heritage growers do clip, but the procedure must be repeated as new feathers grow in, and that gets difficult to do as the birds get bigger.

"They're strong, and you get beaten up pretty seriously, and it's a disruption," said Gaylord Clark, who raises heritage birds at Carriage House Farms in Stevenson. "I don't personally like getting the birds worked up."

Deference to the heritage turkeys may stem in part from their beauty, so striking that Clark has named his mating stock after celebrities Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes. Tom, in the pasture as in real life, is a preening dark beauty. Covered in brown-and-white feathers that shine iridescent copper and green in the sunlight, the Standard Bronze Tom sports a sizeable red snood that Clark said is the key to his gallinaceous sex appeal.

But with movie-star looks comes celebrity-quality misbehavior, made possible by the turkeys' svelte forms.

"I've raised both and butchered both," said William Morrow of Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg. "They [the heritage birds] don't weigh as much. They can throw themselves around more. A bigger, heavier bird can't lunge itself around so much."

Which isn't to say handling ordinary turkeys is a piece of pumpkin pie.

"It's hand-to-hand combat, really," said Bolton, who actually finds conventional birds harder to process because they are heavier. "If they flap their wings and hit you in the face — my gosh — my glasses were knocked off, my nose was all bruised."

During processing, both heritage and white birds have to be wrestled into what looks like a traffic cone. When the turkey gets all the way inside, its head pops out of the top and then, well, it's all over. Not an easy task with any bird, but the heritage ones are more likely to bring full beaks and claws to the fight. (Conventional turkeys raised in confinement have their beaks snipped and claws removed so the birds don't do each other in.)

Even in their afterlife, the turkeys prove troublesome. State-of-the-art hydraulic scissors zip through ordinary turkey bones to remove the feet from the carcass but have trouble cutting heritage bone, Reynolds said.

"The bone density is probably twice as dense," he said. "I was amazed at that."

Pin feathers, more stubborn and more noticeable because of their dark color, pose yet another problem. Those that resist the mechanical plucker must be pulled out by hand.

"You sit there with the tweezers and pluck," Way said.

Even when it's roasted and ready to be served, the heritage turkey poses a final challenge. Lacking the breast heft to balance itself on the cutting board, the carcass tends to flop on its side.

"They sometimes fall over on the platter," said Lee Ann Clark, Gaylord's Clark's wife, who suggested using a potato to prop the birds up at serving time.

There are reasons to put up with all this trouble, from improving biodiversity and food security to tapping into the everything-old-is-new-again culinary vogue that's also brought back home canning and Cherokee Purple tomatoes.

Heritage birds fell out of favor to the point of near extinction over the past half-century as breeders developed varieties that put on weight more quickly, with more white meat, according to the Heritage Turkey Foundation. Broad-Breasted Whites pack on an average of 32 pounds in 18 weeks — outstripping the ability of their leg bones to support their weight — while heritage birds can take six or more months to reach half that weight, according to the foundation and Maryland farmers.

The heritage birds also offer better flavor, glossy food magazines contend. At least to those who like dark meat.

"They don't have the washed-out flavor of the store-bought birds," said Lee Ann Clark. "It's got a little richer, deeper flavor."

All that sounded great to Tom Albright of Albright Farms in Monkton, who was thinking about adding heritage birds to his flock of pasture-raised whites next year. But he changed his mind after taking his own birds to Reynolds for processing and witnessing all those heritage turkeys on the loose.

"I'm not doing them," Albright told his wife, Karen, when he returned home.

"He had to run two of them down himself," she said. "Those birds are a little wilder. They run like a dog."