Kathy Wheeler, owner of STAR Farm in Hardyville, Ky., never imagined a trip to her local farmers market would change her life.
“We actually moved here from out of state and had never been farmers before,” she says. “We had gone to a local farmers market and bought some little chicks, baby ducks and baby turkeys. I was so enamored with and fascinated by the turkeys that I started researching them because I didn’t know what to do with the babies.”
Through her research, she discovered the Bourbon Red turkey, a heritage breed that was developed in the late 1800s by J. F. Barbee from crosses between Buff, Bronze, and White Holland turkeys. The Bourbon Red takes its name from its origins in Kentucky’s Bourbon County and from the reddish hue of its feathers.
Wheeler says she decided to try her hand at raising the Bourbon Red because of its connection to Kentucky history.
“That’s such a precious part of our history that we don’t want to lose,” she says.
Wheeler began breeding the Bourbon Red in 2005, and today she raises some 50 turkeys each spring on her 32-acre farm. She says the Bourbon Red’s most distinguishing factor is its taste.
“If you did go back and look at the history before everything was commercialized, the Bourbon Red was the turkey of choice across the country. It was because the meat was so good, and at the time [was] considered to have a large breast,” Wheeler says. “We hold taste tests all the time. We’ll buy a commercial turkey and then have customers sample it along with ours. Ours wins hands down because the flavor is so awesome – just off the charts.”
Wheeler’s Bourbon Reds are in high demand each fall, and while she primarily sells to Louisville-area consumers, she has shipped her birds as far away as Alaska.
High Off The Hogs
Flavor is also what sets apart another heritage breed, the Red Wattle hog. The breed, known for its red color and fleshy wattle on each side of its neck, was developed by H.C. Wengler in the 1970s in the wooded areas of east Texas. Travis Hood, owner of Hood’s Heritage Hogs in Mt. Olivet, began breeding the Red Wattle around 2009 but stepped up his operation in 2013 after moving his mother and father-in-law’s farm from Indiana to Kentucky. Hood says north-central Kentucky is ideal for raising the Red Wattle because of the topography, which consists of large, open spaces and wooded areas. “We raise our hogs on hillsides, which increases myoglobin production and marbling in the meat and gives it that deep red color,” Hood says.
“When you raise an animal in an all-natural setting, it allows it to have some fat, and when you allow it to graze and fend for itself in the pasture – where it’s eating apples, strawberries, acorns – those flavors are stored in the animal’s fat cells so you get a natural pork flavor, not one that tastes like corn and soy because that’s all it’s fed while it sits in a crate.”
Heritage On The Menu
Hood says he’s seen the demand for Red Wattle pork rise as chefs and restaurateurs have become aware of the meat’s unique flavor.
“We choose to buy local and humanely raised heritage pork because of the tremendous flavor of the meat and to support our local farmers,” says Annie Pettry, chef and partner at Decca restaurant in Louisville. “Not only does the meat – and don’t forget the fat – taste amazing, but buying meat from our local farms impacts our food system by creating a demand for heritage breeds and keeping these farms in business.”
Pettry won the Cochon 555 BBQ Festival, which pits chefs against each other to create the best dish using heritage pork.
Hood’s Red Wattle pork can be sampled at several upscale restaurants, such as Proof on Main in Louisville and Anchor Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, but he says he most enjoys selling directly to consumers because of the interaction.
“Part of my job is education. Selling directly to the consumer means if they have questions about how to cook the meat or store the meat, I can answer those questions. It helps that I enjoy people,” he says. “I get just as much joy being there in front of the person talking to them.”
Heritage Breed Basics
Heritage breeds are livestock breeds developed by some of the country’s early farmers. These animals were selected and bred to develop traits such as hardiness, foraging ability, disease and pest resistance. Heritage breeds are not only an important part of American history, but also offer genetic answers to sustainability.