HPC Asks the Experts: Frank Reese

Frank Reese is a fourth generation poultry farmer who started raising and showing turkeys at the age of five. He currently owns and operates Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Tampa Kansas, the first turkey farm to be certified by the Animal Welfare Institute. Frank is a founding member of the All-American Turkey Growers' Association and a lifetime member of the National Poultry Association. He is the only licensed turkey judge for the American Poultry Association. (www.ReeseTurkeys.com)

The Heritage Poultry Conservancy talked turkeys with Frank and asked about his views regarding the history of heritage poultry and the future of the industry.

Frank Reese with P. Allen Smith
Frank Reese and P. Allen Smith
Frank visits P. Allen at his farm, Moss Mountain, in Arkansas

HPC: When did you first become interested in raising poultry?

Frank Reese: I have raised poultry all my life. As a young person, I started taking care of poultry and showing poultry at the age of 5. Being one of the younger kids in my family I was put in charge of the chickens and all the poultry. I was in 4-H for 10 years and always had poultry as a project. I showed chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese.

HPC: At what point in your work with poultry did you become concerned about heritage breeds and why?

Frank Reese: About 15 years ago I began to notice that all the old breeders that I got my poultry from where dying at an alarming rate. As my mentors passed away I would go and collect their birds and try to continue their lines of birds.

HPC: Why should the average consumer of poultry be concerned about the preservation of heritage breeds?

Frank Reese: Because they are our history and what fed this country for many years back when there was diversity on our farms and in what we ate. It is important to keep biodiversity in our poultry and not just have one line of chickens being raised world wide. We need to return to birds that for years have been raised on farms and have adapted to the environment; birds that are not part of the factory systems. These birds can reproduce on their own and feed a family and others.

HPC: In your opinion what can the consumer do to help support heritage poultry?

Frank Reese: That best thing they can do is buy the birds and eat them again. So the farmers can make a living and the birds will not be lost to time.

HPC: Do you believe there is a role for heritage poultry as a viable source of eggs and meat?

Frank Reese: These birds where the source of meat and eggs for this country and the world for 100s of years. But we must go back to the original breeding stock of the 1930's and 1940's and raise them as they once where. The birds that are still marketable for meat and eggs and that still meet all the steps necessary to be true heritage birds. Poultry that meet all the American Poultry Association's definitions of heritage poultry. If we do, then the birds will produce top marketing meat and eggs.

HPC: How is processed heritage poultry being marketed, sold and distributed in the U.S. today?

Frank Reese: I know of no one else doing this but Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch. We are raising, hatching, breeding and processing heritage poultry at a USDA plant with the APA seal of approval.

HPC: Currently, who are the strongest advocates for the preservation of heritage breeds?

Frank Reese: The American Poultry Association and ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). The main organization is the APA since they wrote the book on what is standard bred poultry and has been around for over 140 years. Calling this bird's heritage is very new, about 10 years old but they where called standard bred for 140 years. Standard bred means pure bred.

HPC: Do you think heritage breeds can play a role in helping to feed third world and developing countries? If so, why?

Frank Reese: Yes, because they can reproduce themselves and survive on very simple diets. The females still have the instinct to breed, nest and hatch their own without man's intervention. Most people do not know that all the chickens they are buying are dead end animals. They are all hybrids that the farmer can not reproduce. So he must always go back to the factory hatching systems to get birds. You can call them organic, free ranged, pastured, all natural and Amish raised but they are still hybrid dead end birds. In a third world these hybrid birds could not survive in harsh environments and places where there is no electricity and poor grain supplies.

HPC: Would you consider heritage poultry a way to help the small American farmer survive? If so, how?

Frank Reese: YES! I am working now with many farmers in Kansas who have lost all their income from poultry because the factory one system of raising poultry is taking over all production. Most all the farms that once raised poultry for meat and eggs have been closed down and this has happen all over the USA. Many of these farmers want to raise poultry again but we must help them find an independant market again.

HPC: Do you believe that heritage poultry can be raised in a way that the birds remain viable, productive, and meet their intended purpose and at the same time be outstanding representatives in the show ring?

Frank Reese: There must be both good show birds and market birds. There should be no difference. It is not either or, but both and. The standard for poultry written by the American Poultry Association was written to improve production of poultry in the country not to win shows. We must bring that back again and find a place for them in our markets. We must put these birds back to work if we are going to save them. They must be able to be profitable for the farmers who are raising them.

HPC: What do you consider the greatest threat to maintaining genetically viable flocks of heritage poultry?

Frank Reese: Keeping the numbers high and the flock over a number of farmers. Finding those men and women who still know how to select or breed good quality heritage birds. Not only are we losing heritage birds at a rapid rate but we are losing the men and women who know how to breed these birds for quality and market ability. Many of the old lines of birds are down to very dangerous levels.

HPC: If you could change the current way in which poultry is bred, raised & processed in this country, what would it be?

Frank Reese: It would be to bring back the infrastructure that once was in this country that allowed people to raise birds for their local market. That we celebrate diversity in our poultry in the market place and on our farms. That one size does not fit all. That we wish to raise birds for market ability, diversity in taste and flavor, with high immune systems and give back the power to the family farm again. That the beauty and aesthetic of the animals we raise is still important to the farmer and the consumers. That we not give one cent to the corporate factory farm system. That means we do not buy or eat their hybrid genetically engineered birds. That we all must be willing to pay a little more to buy poultry that is humanely raised, not dead end, diverse and TRULY sustainable in the full sense.