Turkeys in Virginia

domesticated turkeys have been raised for nearly 2,000 years as free-range poultry and in pens
domesticated turkeys have been raised for nearly 2,000 years as free-range poultry and in pens
Source: Wikimedia, Turkeys at Polyface Farm

English colonists discovered that the wild turkeys in Virginia were both abundant and delicious. William Strachey wrote in 1612:1

Turkeys there be great store, wild in the woods, like phesants in England, forty in a company, as big as our tame here, and yt is an excellent fowle, and so passing good meat, as I maye well saie, yt is the best of any kind of flesh which I have ever yet eaten there.

The turkeys raised in Virginia are descendants of birds that were native to Mexico. They were domesticated there 2,000 years ago, perhaps for ceremonies and rituals as well as for food. Ancestral Pueblo peoples, in what is now the Southwest of the United States, raised free-range turkeys and also kept turkeys in special pens.2

About 40 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving meals, but not all birds end up on the dinner table. At Peaceful Fields Sanctuary near Winchester, there are turkeys and other animals rescued from inhumane conditions, or after falling off a truck on the way to a processing plant and being abandoned. The sanctuary is open occasionally for the public to mingle with the animals. Some who visit are vegans, while others have a turkey in the refrigerator but want to spend some time with the live animals as well.3

Between 2016-2019, the turkeys "pardoned" at the White House by the president at a Thanksgiving ritual were sent to Gobblers Rest at Virginia Tech. They completed their natural lives there, rather than ended up as the centerpiece for a big holiday meal.

In 2020, however, the two turkeys (Corn and Cob) were sent to Iowa State University. The president of the National Turkey Federation had raised them, and he was an Iowa farmer.4

In Virginia, commercial turkey production is concentrated in the Shenandoah Valley. Rockingham County considers itself the "turkey capital."

while most Virginia turkeys ae raised in the Shenandoah Valley, there are commercial operations eat of the Blue Ridge
in 2020, Virginia was the #6 state in the production of turkeys
Source: US Department of Agriculture, Turkeys, Production Contract - Production, Measured In Head(Average -> 2017 - Annual)

In 2021, 275 farms in Virginia raised about 14.5 million turkeys. In the Shenandoah Valley, Skyview Acres raised just 100 turkeys while Hazard Mill Farms raised 19,000 birds with an average weight (unprocessed) of 40-45 pounds.

A crop of turkeys is produced in 19 weeks. Farmers can raise a brood for the entire time, or focus on the "starter phase" and raise them for five weeks and then sell to other farms that complete the "finishing" phase. The US Department of Agriculture allows small farmers to butcher poultry, if they choose to do the labor rather than sell to large processing plants.5

in 2020, Virginia was the #6 state in the production of turkeys
in 2020, Virginia was the #6 state in the production of turkeys
Source: US Department of Agriculture, Turkeys: Number Raised by State, US


the Rockingham Turkey Festival started in 1939
the Rockingham Turkey Festival started in 1939
Source: Virginia State Chamber of Commerce picture collection, Library of Virginia, Rockingham Turkey Festival, Harrisonburg, Virginia


1. William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia, The Hakluyt Society, 1849, p,125, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Historie_of_Travaile_Into_Virginia_B/fYYMAAAAIAAJ (last checked November 26, 2021)
2. Aurelie Manin, Eduardo Corona-M, Michelle Alexander, Abigail Craig, Erin Kennedy Thornton, Dongya Y. Yang, Michael Richards, Camilla F. Speller, "Diversity of management strategies in Mesoamerican turkeys: archaeological, isotopic and genetic evidence," Royal Society Open Science, January 17, 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171613; "Research delves into role of turkeys to Ancestral Pueblo peoples," Phys.org, September 7, 2021, https://phys.org/news/2021-09-delves-role-turkeys-ancestral-pueblo.html (last checked November 2, 2021)
3. "How a one-legged turkey and her friends in Virginia were saved from the dinner plate," Washington Post, November 25, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/11/25/turkeys-spared-peaceful-fields-sanctuary/ (last checked November 25, 2021)
4. "Lame duck's pardoned turkeys will not be Hokie-bound," Danville Register & Bee, November 27, 2020, https://godanriver.com/news/state-and-regional/lame-ducks-pardoned-turkeys-will-not-be-hokie-bound/article_2e82acd7-d3bd-5304-b682-a97f3944b65b.html (last checked November 27, 2020)
5. "Let's talk turkey: Farmers busy raising birds in the Northern Shenandoah Valley," Northern Virginia Daily, November 24, 2021, https://www.nvdaily.com/winchester_star/lets-talk-turkey-farmers-busy-raising-birds-in-the-northern-shenandoah-valley/article_53a24484-0e3e-5abd-9f93-b7aedd203db7.html (last checked November 25, 2021)

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