As early as AD 600, the people of the area that is now the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico domesticated turkeys, which were an important source of meat for them. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrote about how turkeys were driven into the fields to eat tobacco hornworms. After the tobacco harvest the birds would be penned and fattened for the holiday feasts. Even if you don’t grow your own tobacco, turkeys continue to be a great way to control nuisance insects. They have a taste for grasshoppers, flies and other common summer pests.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turkey production became more specialized. In 1874 five varieties of “standard” turkeys were listed in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black and Slate. By the 1920’s the Bronze, the largest variety, had attracted the attention of breeders who emphasized market characteristics such as body size and breast width, and by the early 1940s the Bronze had almost completely replaced all other varieties in the commercial marketplace.
Then during the 1950’s turkey breeders focused on increasing growth rates in white-feathered birds. The fluid inside a feather is the same color as the feather, so dark turkeys have dark fluid while white birds have whitish fluid. This tasteless fluid leaks out onto the turkey’s skin, staining it, during the plucking. Skittish consumers preferred white birds because the dressed turkeys appeared to be cleaner, so by the 1970s the Large White turkey dominated the marketplace, and confinement rearing had become the norm. These huge, 40- to 65-pound birds can not breed themselves, so artificial insemination is required. Today the turkey industry is highly concentrated, with five companies controlling more than 50 percent of the market: Jennie-O Foods, Cargill, Butterball Turkey Company, Wampler Foods, Inc. and Carolina Turkeys.
Male turkeys are raised intensively in confinement houses, which contain as many as 10,000 birds each. Females, smaller and slower growers, are usually killed at a young age and used for livestock feed. Because of the crowded conditions (just 4 square feet per bird) commercial birds are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease and are given tranquilizers to keep the territorial toms from fighting. The birds must be fed high levels of protein because they’ve been bred to grow unnaturally fast. And now there’s the “canolaball” turkey that is injected with fats, stock and flavor enhancers for self-basting as the meat cooks. Ymmm!