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Birds of a different feather

After crossbreeding his turkeys for many years, Willmar man finds perfect ‘chocolate turkey’ blend

Kornell Erickson, of Willmar, had been working on perfecting a chocolate turkey for several years until he got the results he wanted.

Heritage sweetgrass and chocolate turkeys raised on Kornell Erickson’s farm near Willmar. Erickson has been crossbreeding turkeys for years to get these varieties. Photo by Scott Thoma

Heritage sweetgrass and chocolate turkeys raised on Kornell Erickson’s farm near Willmar. Erickson has been crossbreeding turkeys for years to get these varieties. Photo by Scott Thoma

But this isn’t the kind of chocolate turkey that you unwrap and eat. This is a rare chocolate heritage turkey that he crossbred three times to get the look that was more common among turkey farmers in the early 20th century.

“I don’t know of any others in the state,” said Erickson, 78, of his chocolate turkey. “I haven’t heard of any.”

Another heritage turkey, even more rare than the chocolate that Erickson developed through various stages of breeding, is a sweetgrass turkey that had to be crossbred five times to get it to Erickson’s satisfaction.

Erickson is a “birdman” of sorts. He lives alone on his 21-acre property two miles southeast of town, unless you include the 40 turkeys, 200 guineas, 60 chickens, 13 peacocks, five roosters, three ducks, and a goose; the latter roams the yard like a security guard keeping a close watch on all the activities going on.

“He’s my guard goose,” chuckled Erickson.

To keep predators, such as foxes, skunks and raccoons, away from his birds, Erickson has mounted CD discs to posts, as well as installing red flashing solar lights throughout his farm.

“The red blinking lights keep the skunks and raccoons and fox away,” he said. “I haven’t had a skunk on the property in years. And the CD discs I mount in different angles and the way the sun or light reflects off them keeps the hawks away.”

Erickson is slightly limited in his mobility following major back surgery recently. But he is well ahead of his recovery schedule, and he isn’t the type to sit around and rest.

The expression on his face reveals his love for his birds. And they seem to reciprocate those feelings as they follow him around as he goes about his daily chores on the property.

“I love working outdoors, and I really enjoy working with the birds,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t still love it. It keeps me young.”

Erickson, a North Dakota native, was born and raised on a farm that included all types of farm animals, including geese and turkeys. He moved to Willmar in 1985 and purchased his current property three years later.

Erickson managed Holm Brothers Hardware Store in Willmar for 23 years before retiring eight years ago and now devotes all his time to his farm and birds.

“I was always intrigued by bird shows,” he said. “So I decided to start raising chickens and bought some Japanese rosecomb chickens that came from New Mexico and California.”

He began increasing his flock by breeding those chickens with no imperfections, such as crooked beaks and crooked toes, in an attempt to make bigger and better ones.

“I wanted to make them as perfect as I could,” he said.

And over the years he became so proficient at it that he decided to expand his crossbreeding prowess into developing heritage turkeys.

Heritage turkeys, similar to those that were raised in the early 20th century, are not as common among turkey farmers as they once were.

Some of the heritage turkeys on Kornell Erickson’s farm near Willmar. Photo by Scott Thoma

Some of the heritage turkeys on Kornell Erickson’s farm near Willmar. Photo by Scott Thoma

It takes years of selective breeding to get a heritage turkey that will grow to a good finished weight of 17-25 pound for toms and 14-18 pounds for hens. Unlike chickens, there are very few breeders that actually breed for standards and growth in the United States.

A heritage turkey is one of a variety of strained turkeys which retain historic characteristics that are no longer present in the majority of turkeys raised for consumption.

They are differentiated from other domestic turkeys in that they are biologically capable of being raised in a manner that more closely matches the natural behavior and life cycle of wild turkeys.

“You can’t buy heritage turkeys in a store, but they are much better tasting and healthier for you than the commercial turkeys,” said Erickson, whose opinion has been echoed by many chefs and food critics.

Heritage turkeys also have a longer lifespan and a much slower growth rate than turkeys bred for industrial agriculture. And, unlike industrially bred turkeys, heritage turkeys can reproduce without artificial insemination.

More than 10 different breeds are classified as heritage turkeys, including the chocolate, sweetgrass, auburn, buff, bourbon red, narragansett, royal palm, slate, standard bronze, and midge white.

But the approximate 25,000 heritage turkeys raised annually in the United States are now a tiny minority compared to the 200,000,000 industrial turkeys and 7,000,000 turkeys in the wild.

According to the American Poultry Association, a heritage turkey must meet the following specifications: (1) They must breed naturally. A heritage-bred turkey must have naturally-mated parents and grandparents. (2) They must be able to endure a lengthy, natural outdoor reproduction system. A breeding hen is productive for five to seven years and a breeding tom for three to five years. (3) They must have a slow to moderate rate of growth. Turkeys raised in industrial agriculture are slaughtered at 14-18 weeks of age, while heritage turkeys reach a marketable weight in about 28 weeks, giving the bird time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs prior to building muscle mass.

Erickson’s chocolate and sweetgrass toms have been “put out to pasture” so to speak and are no longer used for breeding purposes. But he will continue to breed and raise other heritage turkeys in March again.

To breed his chocolate turkey, he first cross-bred a bourbon red turkey with a buff.

“They are both placed together in a building used for breeding,” Erickson noted. “I used the buff because it has no white on it.”

Once the eggs are laid and gathered, Erickson places them in his incubator to hatch them. A turkey baby is called a poult and it takes about five or six months for them to begin taking on their colors and become full-feathered.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m getting until they get their colors,” Erickson said. “And once I got one with the colors and size and shape that I liked, I crossbred that one with a bourbon red again. And then when that one was mature, I crossbred it again with a buff.”

The sweetgrass was bred in a similar fashion, beginning with a bourbon red and a royal palm. Once the poult reaches maturity, Erickson selected a specific one to breed again with a royal palm, then alternated breeding his selections with a bourbon red and royal palm three more times to get the desired end result.

Erickson sells the majority of the heritage poults he now raises. But he still plans to develop more heritage turkeys through crossbreeding.

Kornell Erickson of Willmar looking over his flock of turkeys eating from a compost pile. Photo by Scott Thoma

Kornell Erickson of Willmar looking over his flock of turkeys eating from a compost pile. Photo by Scott Thoma

“My birds are fed well,” he said. “That helps develop a bigger and stronger bird. In the summer, I have a big compost pile that I turn every so often, and the birds eat worms and bugs and things like that. In the winter, they get cracked corn and a high-protein supplement.”

Erickson also has a huge organic garden and 20-tree apple orchard and sells his naturally-grown products to customers. When the season is over, he gives the unused vegetables to his turkeys and other feathered friends. After making homemade applesauce out of his apples, Erickson allows the birds to dine on the peels and cores.

“They love tomatoes and apples,” Erickson said.

And just like finicky children, the birds don’t eat all their vegetables.

“They don’t like peppers of any kind,” laughed the personable Erickson.

Erickson then showed how his birds “flock around” at feeding time. He hoped aboard a garden tractor with apple cores and peels in a bucket. As he motored around, he dropped the apple scraps.

Within seconds, the area was congested with birds of all colors, sizes, sounds and breeds devouring the food left for them.

“Even though I’ve been doing this for years, I still love watching them at feeding time,” Erickson said, gazing down at the birds.

And almost always methodically strutting together are the chocolate and sweetgrass toms. The inseparable toms have mirrored mannerisms. They stop and start strutting simultaneously, while also pecking at their food, fanning their tail feathers, and stretching out their long necks to gobble at the same time as though Erickson trained them like synchronized swimmers.

With all the various birds on the Erickson farmstead, about the only thing missing as Christmas nears is a partridge in a pear tree.

But he does have a guard goose and an apple tree.

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