Heritage Turkey Project

Slow Food Russian River is proud to continue our support for the Heritage Turkey Project in Sonoma County.

Now in its eighteenth year, stewards Catherine and Chuck Thode mentor Sonoma County’s 4-H and FFA youth in raising these magnificent heritage turkeys. Livestock conservation organizations promote the breeding and sale of heritage turkeys to preserve these old breeds for the enjoyment of future generations.  Heritage Turkeys are experiencing a revival, as food lovers have discovered their superior flavor and succulent texture not found in commercial broad-breasted sold in stores today. The turkeys grown for this project are raised on organic feed and are sold fresh (never frozen!).

In ordering a heritage turkey you support the next generation of farmers, local organic food, and Heritage breeds. Please reserve your turkey by clicking on the button below to fill out an order form, then mail in your $40 deposit. The proceeds from the sale of each turkey go to the young farmer who grew it.  

History of the Slow Food Russian River Heritage Turkey Project

In 2001, Slow Food USA started a project to reintroduce Heritage turkeys to American consumers. The initial goal was to encourage farmers to raise eight traditional varieties, as most of them remain perilously close to extinction. Our first national partner was The Livestock Conservancy, which estimated that fewer than 1,200 breeding turkeys of those varieties remained in the entire country.

Heritage TurkeysSo why heritage birds? The global Slow Food movement is committed to preserving biodiversity. Even today, nearly all commercially sold turkeys in this country are the same breed – the Broad Breasted White. They are bred for their white feathers (so they appear cleaner when you cook them) and for their huge breasts. These birds can’t fly, walk, or even breed naturally. Raised in confinement with no exercise, industrial turkeys have weak immune systems and often require antibiotics.  When they are slaughtered, their flesh is so bland that they are often injected with saline solution and vegetable oil to improve their taste.

We were encouraged in 2001 to be turkey pioneers and order our Thanksgiving bird from Frank Reese, a now legendary breeder in Kansas. Along with the postage, it was a very expensive bird! Randi Seidner, who organized the project in the beginning, found a small local farmer in Petaluma who agreed to raise about 80 turkeys that we promoted to our members. Through her, we met the Thodes and other 4-H families. Slow Food’s passion for educating youth perfectly matched the tenets of 4-H and we began our work.

The first year or two, Willie Benedetti of Willie Bird raised 200 heritage turkeys and we committed to selling them. After that, the fact that the heritage breed turkeys could fly and had more spirit made them harder to raise and transport. Willie was then ready for us to move on.

We’re working closely with 4-H families to raise at least 200 heritage turkeys per year. We first ordered and paid for the poults (turkey chicks), paid for their food and all expenses, and promoted them for sale.

In the next few years we switched to organic feed, and began handing the project over to the youth. Slow Food Russian River member and former leader Jim Reichardt, a.k.a. “The Duck Man,” helps each year with his equipment, refrigerated truck, and storage facilities just before Thanksgiving.

In 2006, the official 4-H heritage breeds club was launched in Sonoma County. They have raised approximately 200 birds per year since then, including the American Bronze, Bourbon RedNarragansett, and Royal Palm varieties, all on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

The youth are in charge of paying for (or hatching their own) turkey poults and for all the feed and supplies that they will need to raise the birds each year. The Heritage Turkey Project is a network of people that make this happen each year, including the families of the 4-H project members, 4-H leaders, Jim Reichardt, Slow Food Russian River, and other community volunteers. The youth are mentored by 4-H leaders and other adults to help them learn responsible animal husbandry, the importance of heritage breeds, and achieve their goals. Everyone pitches in to support the youth and make this project a success.

This project continues to bring awareness to our community, our farmers, and our future farmers about biodiversity. When you buy your food locally, you support family farms and local farmland for future generations. If you’re interested in learning more about heritage breeds, the Livestock Conservancy is a great resource.


The commitment to raising these birds is a priceless life lesson for the kids, an opportunity I wish I would have had in my youth. Worth every penny per pound, as we all agreed, our turkey was the best we had ever had and made our Thanksgiving more appreciated and memorable.

Cynthia Rowe, Pezzi King Vineyards