That turkey on America’s table this holiday season is more than likely the result of a supremely efficient integrated system that delivers a highly economical and consistent product.

In a market of more than 300 million consumers, however, there’s plenty of room for other options.

The growing trend toward alternative poultry enterprises is far too small to be any kind of threat to the corporate-based commercial poultry industry. For some farm families, though, it may be an opportunity.

Alternative poultry farms don’t fit into a neat definition. They might be organic, or free-range, or focused on old-time breeds of birds.

Or they might not. What most have in common, though, is that birds usually have outdoor access and the meat or eggs are most typically marketed directly to consumers.

Far from get-rich-quick schemes, the poultry operations usually complement other enterprises on small, diversified farms—farm fresh eggs to go along with garden produce merchandised at farmer’s markets, for instance.

The foundation for all of these slightly off-the-grid operations is a significant portion of the food-buying public that wants to know more about what it’s eating.

“It’s the whole story they’re selling,” says Betsy Conner, an Arkansas poultry researcher with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). “More and more people want to know more about where their food comes from and how it’s raised. For some it may be an animal welfare issue, some may just prefer to support small farmers and for others it may just be a matter of taste.

“One thing is certain, though. If there weren’t a market for it, it wouldn’t be happening and I think it’s fair to say that the trend is growing.”

Conner acknowledges that alternative poultry enterprises face higher per unit costs. The system is usually less efficient and can’t reap the benefits of economies of scale of huge integrated operations.

And that means they have to distinguish themselves by offering a unique product for which consumers are willing to pay a little extra.

Broilers represent the most common of alternative poultry enterprises. Operations in the 2000-bird range are fairly typical but they come in all sizes. Many start-ups which do their own processing stay below the 1000-bird level so they can be exempt from inspection. Usually, the chickens are pastured—which means they are in a sheltered, moveable pen on grass. Some are free-range, giving them open access to pastures.

Most small broiler producers rely on Cornish-crosses, the same type of birds used in integrated systems. Sources for the Cornish-type chickens are more abundant and the birds grow rapidly, although not as fast as they would in confinement.

Some producers, however, are moving to breeds known as “slow growth” chickens. These tend to be standard breeds and hybrids which gain at a far slower rate than the Cornish-crosses.

It isn’t the slow-growth factor that attracts growers to these birds, however, since slower growth means increased feed costs. The draw is that slow growth types are physically better adapted to a pastured or free-range environment. They are reputed to be more active, better able to walk and more adaptable to a range of climates. Additionally, the ultra-consistency offered by the strains used in vertically integrated systems is less important in a small-farm pastured situation.

And, the other factor is that slow-growth birds offer one more way for producers to distinguish their product in the marketplace.

Some independent poultry raisers take it a step further with “Heritage” chickens, ducks and turkeys. The term has strict connotations. Among a host of other requirements, Heritage birds must be from parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association prior to the mid-20th century. Breeds such as Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red and Jersey Giant chickens qualify, as well as turkey breeds like the Narraganset and Bourbon Red.

The Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan., has pioneered a movement back to these standard breeds. Owner Frank Reese is known as the nation’s preeminent Heritage turkey producer and his birds will be on tables all over America this holiday season. Good Shepherd birds spend about four months on pasture and the operation emphasizes high welfare standards.

Of course, the people who raise Heritage—also referred to as “Heirloom”—birds face far higher production costs and, as a result, have to charge a far higher price for their meat. Although prices vary, a cost of $10/per pound for a dressed bird is a fair estimate and that means the big 20-lb. bird for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is going to run up to and beyond $200.

When consumers can pick up an on-sale holiday turkey for well under a buck a pound, Heritage birds obviously must appeal to a discriminating and upscale class of consumer.

Despite their pricey products, alternative poultry operations face the same input pressures that the rest of America’s farmers confront and they continually search for ways to save dollars.

On the University of Arkansas campus at Fayetteville, USDA poultry researcher Anne Fanatico conducts studies to increase the information base for outdoor access poultry production. Currently, she’s running a trial involving cafeteria-style feeding of whole grains, soybean and fish meal. The premise is that such an approach could provide a lower-cost alternative to commercial poultry feed. The practice would also enable producers to utilize feedstuffs they produced themselves or those produced on neighboring farms.

Another challenge small producers face is processing their birds. Betsy Conner suggests that farmers interested in alternative enterprises do their homework regarding state regulations for on-farm processing and sale of poultry products. Some states, Kansas and Arkansas included, have commercial processors which cater to the smaller operations.

“Getting your marketing plan in place is the first thing to do,” she advises. “Most of these enterprises tend to be located fairly close to metropolitan areas because that’s where the market is. The important thing is that, if you’re going to sell poultry meat or eggs perceived as having a higher value, then you have to be able to back that up and promote those things that distinguish your product.”

When it’s all said and done, the big question is whether these alternative birds taste better than confinement birds. That, apparently, really is a matter of taste. Most Americans are more accustomed to the taste of confinement-raised chicken and turkey and many prefer it, especially with its far lower cost.

For some folks, though, the somewhat different texture and, even more important, the way they are produced, makes pastured and and free-range birds the best choice.

The result is that the nation’s farmers are reacting to consumer demand and setting a more diverse table than ever before for American consumers.

For more on alternative poultry, a wealth of information is available at www.attra.org.

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