We know polar bears are endangered and rhinos have all but disappeared. But what about endangered chickens? Or cows? Or pigs?
Many of the barnyard breeds Americans ate for generations have all but vanished from the farm, not to mention the dinner table. It’s not because we ate too many of them, but because we stopped eating them altogether.
The result? Thousands of breeds of poultry, pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep have been threatened with extinction.
For farmers, that means a dwindling gene pool. For diners, it means a loss of flavors tastier than the ones we’ve become used to.
A growing movement is helping keep these heritage breeds alive, though, thanks to some committed breeders, a growing passion for small farms, and a greater interest in what we eat.
“If you’re going to save them, you’ve got to get them back on the table and have people enjoy eating them,” says Gra Moore, owner of Carolina Heritage Farms in Pamplico, S.C., where he raises breeds of chickens, turkeys, and hogs hard to find anywhere else.
“Your average person doesn’t know what most of these breeds are,” says Moore, a one-time poultry science major who left the business.
Moore set out to raise animals like his grandfather did and found that a lot of rare breeds did better in an old-fashioned setting than modern hybrids. On his farm are Ossoba Island pigs, descendants of Spanish pigs brought by conquistadors centuries ago, which survived on only a tiny island off the Georgia coast. He has guinea hogs, acorn eaters like the ones his grandfather raised that nearly disappeared after World War II. He raises Buckeye chickens and Dark Cornish chickens and Black Spanish turkeys.
What happened to all these breeds? Industrialized agriculture chased them out, says Jennifer Kendall, of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which helps heritage breeders such as Moore.
Chicken producers favored birds that matured fast. Turkey farms wanted birds with giant breasts. Hog farmers favored animals with lots of meat, but not necessarily lots of flavor. Over time, breeds that were smaller or grew slower dwindled, even if they tasted better.
The conservancy has been around since 1911, but it’s gotten a boost in recent years as more and more chefs, influenced by the Slow Food movement – which essentially preserves and promotes local and traditional food – have caught on to heritage breeds. Growers have joined in, too, spurred by small farms and backyard chickens. Many heritage breeds are better suited to small farms, Kendall says, because that’s what they were raised for.
Over the years, many breeds have vanished altogether, but others are making a comeback. When conservancy started, heritage turkeys were on the verge of extinction.
Now, they number 10,000 and growing. Preserving the flavors is nice, but preserving their genetics may be crucial. Kendall looks to the great Irish potato famine: The greater the variety, the safer the food supply.
Part of preserving these breeds is about preserving history, too. Often these breeds are so intimately tied to the region and the culture, losing them is like losing a landmark.
“You have breeds that were on grandma’s farm for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Kendall says. “It’s really kind of a family thing.”