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8 The Industrialized Turkey; or, How the Turkey Became a Profit Center In the midst of the Civil War the U.S. Congress boldly launched two major efforts unrelated to the war: creation of what became the Department of Agriculture and passage of the Land Grant College Act. The latter established agricultural colleges throughout the nation.The Hatch Act twenty-five years later created agricultural experiment stations, which were frequently housed at the land grant colleges. In order to coordinate research at the experiment stations, which issued reports on a wide variety of agricultural matters, the act also launched the Office of Experiment Stations in the Department of Agriculture.1 Beginning in 1898, states began to establish agricultural extension services, which were assigned to disseminate the latest and best agricultural information. In 1914 Congress passed the SmithLever Act, which created the cooperative agricultural extension service at land grant colleges. Each development influenced American agriculture and the turkey industry. The experiment stations conducted research into turkey husbandry beginning in the 1890s, and in 1893 the Rhode Island Station released the first publication on turkeys. Others would follow.2 The problem was how best to keep farmers informed, so women began to be hired as teachers and specialists, given that many growers were boys and women—who raised birds for “pin money.” “A boy of ten or twelve years old, with little direction from his father,” one nineteenth-century turkey-raiser announced, “will do the taking care to raise a hundred turkeys; he cannot earn so much money in any other way.”3 Another observer noted, “Many a farmer’s wife, whose husband does not care to ‘bother with poultry,’ can earn from 01.1-136_Smit.indd 93 8/1/06 3:45:46 PM 94 . the turkey fifty to three hundred dollars a year.” Before readers could object, the writer quickly noted that this could be done “without seriously impeding the other necessary work which falls to the lot of farmers’ wives.”4 The Automated Turkey The turkey industry had grown slowly throughout the nineteenth century.Turkey farming was second in importance only to raising chickens, but it was a distant second. Most farmers raised turkeys to feed their families and sold a few birds to make a little extra money.Turkey raising was typified by W. A. Browning , a farmer who had begun keeping the birds during the 1830s in Norwich, Connecticut. With an eye on profit, he developed productive ways of raising, feeding, branding (the turkeys tended to wander to neighboring farms), fattening (he recommended boiled potatoes mixed with corn accompanied by milk and occasionally apples), and finally butchering. According to his records, Browning sold turkeys for $386 in 1869, and feed cost him about $147. Browning was quite satisfied with the $239 net profit. When he retired he wrote and published a small pamphlet describing his success. A Complete System of Raising Turkeys (1873) was the first booklet devoted to the topic.5 Browning’s book was followed fourteen years later by Fanny Field’s Practical Turkey Raising: Turkeys for Market and Turkeys for Profit (1887). The pseudonymous Field, identified as “the most experienced turkey raiser in America,” reported that there was “no branch of poultry farming that pays so well in proportion to the investment of time, labor and capital as raising turkeys for market .” She claimed that one year she had raised 150 turkeys in addition to doing all “housework and sewing for a family of five.” She grossed $400 from the sale of the birds, two-thirds of which was profit.6 The price for turkeys dropped during the following decades. In Texas at the turn of the century, for instance, toms retailed for 75 cents apiece and hens for 50 cents. The main reason for the decline was the ease with which turkeys could be raised and the greatly improved transportation system in America. Then there was also the low price of beef, which many Americans preferred to turkey. Beef production rapidly expanded during the late nineteenth century, and vast shipments were imported from Mexico. In 1897 Congress passed the Dingley Act, which placed a tariff on imported beef, and prices went up. The demand for turkeys increased apace, and so did their prices. Increased profits made raising turkeys a more attractive proposition. In 1905 a grower in Texas, 01.1-136_Smit.indd 94 8/1/06 3:45:46 PM E. A. Tully, began selling his birds by weight, and other farmers followed...


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