Heritage turkeys keep couple in touch with land

Published 2:37 pm Saturday, November 28, 2015

FOUNTAIN — Every Bourbon red heritage turkey Steve and Mary Berg sell is a meal and a message.

They have been raising the bird, a mix between European and native birds, for the past few years as a way to live more fully off the land at Little Bend Heritage Farm near Fountain, keep a once-threatened bird alive and provide consumers with a more savory, natural Thanksgiving bird.

At the same time, they try to spread the message of living in a heritage manner. For them, meal and message go hand-in-hand. They want people to eat more from nature and less from the grocery store.

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The two grew up on farms in Iowa and then lived in Texas where they had a big garden and raised cattle, he said. After many years, they returned to Minnesota to raise their son, Shawn, in a smaller town. They first lived in Elgin, but then found 20 acres along a small bend in a township road near Fountain, hence the name.

He worked for Strongwell in Chatfield, she works for Watlow in Winona.

They tried raising chickens, but they didn’t fare well in the winter. They also tried goats, but they took too much care and feed.

Then one day, their lives changed. A co-worker told Steve about his son raising Bourbon red heritage turkeys for a 4-H project, but he didn’t know what to do with them.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as a heritage turkey,” he said. “I butchered one, and it was delicious.”

They aren’t gamey but have a richer, more savory meat. They are named after a Kentucky county, not the liquor, and really aren’t all that red, he said.

From there, they got more eggs, raised more birds, and sold eggs, poults and grown birds. Last year, they sold 250, he said. They have their birds processed at KB Poultry in Utica. During the weekend, they prepared 100 birds for processing today. The fresh turkeys were shipped to the Twin Cities for Thanksgiving, he said.

The Bergs sell the turkeys for about $7 a pound, and they retail in the Twin Cities for about $10 a pound. That’s a lot more than frozen birds in grocery stores, but Bourbon reds are like salmon or lobster, Steve Berg said. “You don’t mind paying that kind of price” for a special occasion.

For the Bergs, the turkeys were a perfect fit for Little Bend. The birds are tough and can tolerate winter, they forage for bugs and seeds in summer and even eat outside in winter, but their diet is supplemented with some corn and other grains, he said. No drugs go into the birds. The Bergs put a little vinegar in their water to get rid of worms and cayenne pepper in their grain for fighting viruses.

The idea of raising heritage birds was also a perfect fit for their message, Mary Berg said. Reducing your reliance on the grocery store “is a very healthy was to live,” she said. The only things they buy from the store are milk and fish. Other meats they get from trading with relatives. They buy whole wheat and grind it for flour. They raise bees for honey and have a large garden.

“We are the kind of people who know where everything comes from,” she said.

This push came in part from being raised on a farm and in part from a visit to a doctor, Steve Berg said. At one point, he weighed 200 pounds and had high cholesterol. Instead of medication, he cut out processed foods and lost 50 pounds. He now has great cholesterol numbers.

He believes many medical problems come from eating the wrong foods.

And that’s a message he’s spreading on his blogs and on his website, www.littlebendheritagefarm.com. He talks about eating your lawn — harvesting dandelions and other “weeds” instead of buying lettuce — having gardens and other ways to live closer to nature.

He now works on the farm full-time, raising turkeys, caring for other animals and working as a blacksmith.

“I think we should try to preserve some of the older ways of living and try to preserve some of the older breeds,” he said.