Some History about Sunny Slope Farm and Turkeys

Turkeys are Very Virginia

By CiCi Williamson©, Food and Travel Writer (reprint of archived post found on internet www.virginiawineguide.org, 18 Nov 2004)

If you like turkey, you have a Virginia farmer to thank for domesticating the big bird. Virginia is the cradle of the modern turkey industry. Up until the early 20th century, if you wanted a turkey to cook, you had to shoot one in the wild. Then in 1922, an ingenious Virginia farmer devised a way to brood (incubate and hatch) turkeys from eggs. Charles Wampler, Sr. became “the father of the modern turkey industry.” Today Virginia produces 526 million pounds of turkey a year — that’s 24 million birds — and ranks fourth among the states in turkey production.

Turkeys are native to North America, and “The Old Dominion” is the original turkey-farming state. The industry began in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1920s. Charles W. Wampler, Jr., chairman of the board of directors of Wampler Foods, Inc. before it was sold to Pilgrim’s Pride in 2000, tells the history.

“Back when I was a kid, we had 12 to 15 turkey hens that ran loose on the farm. In the spring when the hens would go into the woods and lay their eggs in a nest, my first job around the family farm was to find where they hid them, gather the eggs, and bring them to my dad.”

“Dad” was Charles W. Wampler, Sr., the founder of the National Turkey Federation, was also the first to contract with farmers to grow chickens. In those years, he was the county agent for Rockingham County and Page County.

“Dad had a small shed kind of like a big dog house with a little oil stove in it to keep the eggs warm. It took 4 weeks to hatch a turkey egg. Then he would let the turkey hens out and they would lead the little birds around the farm just like a wild turkey would. There was no turkey feed in those days. My mom mixed hard boiled eggs with cornmeal to feed them,” relates Wampler. Appropriately for a turkey producer—and a turkey producer’s son—Wampler was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1915.

Turkey the Old Fashioned Way

“In the old days, a man went out and shot a wild turkey. There were no domestic ones. All turkeys were wild. Today all the romance has gone out of the turkey business. We grow hens in one house and the toms in another. They live their whole lives without seeing the other sex.”

“The bronze turkey you see in Thanksgiving pictures came from wild turkeys. But when you plucked the feathers off a brown turkey like a Narragansett or Bourbon Red, it would leave black dots called ‘Ink’–like polka dots all over the bird–and the dots would stay right there. You couldn’t get rid of them. There was a process of breeding to make turkeys white so no color would be left when you plucked the feathers. That’s what the consumers wanted.”

“Back in those days, you’d start growing turkeys in May and sell them at Thanksgiving and Christmas.” During the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were dramatic changes in the poultry industry. Because of breeding, nutrition, and management breakthroughs, the feed conversion improved, the life cycle of birds was shortened for the same weight gain, and the volume of tonnage increased. Virginia became the top-producing turkey state right after World War II,” said Wampler.

Most poultry in the beginning of the 1940s were free-range birds. Chickens were the first to be confined. It was not uncommon even into the 1950s that the processing plant called the farm family to ask them to keep the flock penned up for the pick-up crew.

In 2005, the oldest turkeys on the market are only 5 1/2 months old. Toms weigh more than hens; that’s the only difference in the meat. Both are young and tender. After roasting, deep frying, smoking, or whatever method you use to cook your turkey, you’re sure to have leftover cooked meat. When you tire of turkey sandwiches and turkey soup, try these recipes for a different twist on enjoying that Virginia turkey.