This summer, the world’s first restaurant serving only heritage poultry opened in Deposit, New York, a popular weekend destination among New Yorkers. It sells heritage meats produced by Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch and is already generating regional buzz. Butterfields’ opening is a milestone for proponents of humane, sustainable animal agriculture—and it all started with a simple phone call.
“I wanted to open a restaurant with healthy, humane menu options,” said Butterfield’s owner George Merich, “but I didn’t know where to start. I browsed the Internet and found a place called Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. Its owner, Farm Forward board member Frank Reese, picked up when I called.” Merich grew up on a farm and is a self-described “animal-loving meat-eater;” but before talking with Reese he was only somewhat aware of the horrors of factory farming. “I learned so much from that first phone call,” Merich remembers, “especially about turkeys.”
Reese, a 46-year veteran farmer, has raised turkeys since he was a boy and is a leading expert on the history of American poultry. Reese explained what sets his Heritage Turkeys™ apart from the “broad-breasted White,” the industry’s bird of choice for mass production. Industrial turkeys are bred to grow at twice the rate of the turkeys of a generation ago.1 They are incapable of flying or mating naturally (the industry relies on artificial insemination) and are given antibiotics routinely. As a result the turkey products available in virtually all grocery stores and restaurants (including free-range and organic brands) are often from sick, injured, and even dying birds who suffered throughout their lives.
In contrast, Good Shepherd turkeys—bred continuously from flocks dating back to at least 1917— grow at a natural and healthy rate, reproduce on their own, enjoy a humane and spacious environment, and can even fly. They are called Heritage Turkeys™ because genetically they are the same hardy, healthy turkeys our grandparents and great-grandparents ate. The American Poultry Association designates them “Standard-Bred,” which means they meet the Standards of Perfection established in the late 1800s.2 These birds are never given antibiotics or other antimicrobials, and are meticulously cared for by Frank Reese and his network of compassionate farmers.
The results of such a system are extraordinary: leaner, more protein-rich poultry that has been featured on the Martha Stewart Show, earned praise from celebrity chefs like Mario Batali, and won top honors in several taste contests including one organized by the New York Times.
Once Merich understood what made Good Shepherd’s Heritage Poultry™ so different, he flew out to Kansas to visit Reese and see his operation. He helped Reese take his turkeys to pasture in the morning and herd them back in at night. The experience left a profound impression. As Merich put it, “When you actually hold a turkey and look into its eyes, it’s a whole new game.”
Now Merich is bringing the care, expertise, and unrivaled animal husbandry he experienced in Kansas to Deposit, New York.
Merich represents a new breed of entrepreneurship—one that insists both businesses and consumers alike should benefit from healthier, hardier, and more ethically raised birds. Heritage farm animals combine good business with highest welfare in the same success story. “What I love about working with farmers like Frank is not only that they are good people, but that they have a time-tested and humane business model that really works. I’m not just supporting one good farmer but preserving the legacy of the best of American farming.” True, entrepreneurs like Merich are preserving a part of American history, but their eyes are more on the future than the past: a future without factory farms.
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