09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Forgotten Extinction: Heritage Livestock

Walk into any elementary school in America and ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up. You'll hear the usual rattling off of conventional careers. Those kids will tell you all sorts of jobs they romanticize in their own ways. But I'm willing to bet none of those kids will shoot their hands in the air, squirm like they haven't been allowed to use a bathroom in days, and shout "I want to raise Gloucestershire Old Spots!!!"

It's not their fault. Farming isn't exactly the suburban third grader's dream. Even if it was, most children have never heard of rare swine breeds such as Old Spots. I know I sure as hell didn't and I was one of those annoying kids who could look at an illustrated encyclopedia of animals and list them off like an OCD-crippled baseball fanatic could sling stats.

So why don't we know, hear, or care much about heritage livestock? Is it because an animal we eat at home isn't as exciting as the ones who's homes we burn down far away? Regardless of the reasons, their dramatically depleting numbers seem to take a backseat to their wild counterparts' plight. If we find a pocket of 125,000 hidden gorillas it makes front page news... if we find a farmer in Tennessee breeding 125,000 Scottish Highland cattle, we just consider him eccentric (or a bad businessmen because who eats Highland cattle in Big Macs?) Let's face it, rare farm animals just aren't as sexy as baseball players and jungle apes so they don't get the spotlight. And that's sad, because these farm kids are our home team. They're the pioneering breeds that fed our country and our countrymen's homelands for centuries. They're nearly gone and no one even knows about it. These noble domestic animals deserve a chance to stick it out. Since we're the ones responsible for their existence in the first place, we owe them that much.

Why doesn't anyone know about these guys? Well, because heritage breeds are forgotten faces in the modern farm world. Due to the assembly line style of meat production, the animals we eat have dwindled to a small number of industrial-strength breeds. Unnatural creations of apathetic mutants who don't mind being packed like sardines or force fed corn. Falling to the wayside are the hardy farm animals of yore. Randall Lineback cattle and Shetland sheep. Magpie ducks and Dominique Chickens. As factory farming becomes the norm, large-scale farmers are no longer utilizing the original livestock that defined the culinary and cultural world of all the past generations. So not only are we limiting the experiences on the ends of our forks - we're slowly destroying a part of our collective history. You might never look a Oberhasli goat in the eye, but that doesn't mean your great grandparents didn't.


But there is hope. There are breed clubs and associations keeping the hoofstock, poultry, and draft animals afloat. Most are kept watch under the mothership of agriculture-animal conservation known as the The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The fine people there are keeping track of over 150 types of rare farm animals from poultry to ponies. If you have a spare thirty bucks, join. It'll be well worth it. Membership helps spread the word about these animals, and as a member you'll receive a beautiful directory of local farms and producers. You can put it to good use too. Maybe this Thanksgiving you can serve up a local Bourbon Red turkey instead of a Butterball? Or your kid's birthday party could be a trip to see a herd of Tennessee Fainting Goats (I assure you, this will be a hit among ten-year-olds.) If you're feeling brassy and already have a few chickens in a backyard pen - why not get a few rare breeds to add interest and color to the flock? Small efforts like these encourage farmers to keep breeding these animals, which ensures their preservation for the future. And who knows, maybe the next generation will have kids who not only know what a gorilla looks like, but proudly raise their hand to announce they want to raise Old Spots. It's a stretch, but I'm an optimist.