The “family-size, handy-weight” turkey developed by Stanley J. Marsden and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry had a brief period of popularity once it was released to the commercial market in the 1940s, but became an obscure oddity by the 1970s, and is now labeled as critically endangered by the Livestock Conservancy. This short review will describe the rise and fall of the Beltsville Small White through a sample of documents located both inside the National Agricultural Library, located in Beltsville, MD, and in other external repositories relevant to agriculture.
Many of us have a passing familiarity with the story of the Beltsville Small White Turkey (BSW). In the 1930s a team of poultry scientists working in the then-named USDA Beltsville Research Center bred a new turkey. The team, led by Stanley J. Marsden gave the bird its name partly because of its place of origin (Beltsville, Maryland) and partly because of its size (small), and color (white). An aspect of the story that may not be as familiar is the role that a private sector initiative of commercial grocery stores played in Marsden’s research.
A 1939 publication described an initiative developed by the National Association of Food Chains named the “Producer-Consumer Campaign” in an effort for grocery store retailers to…
…endeavor to cooperate with the producers…in the effective marketing of excess seasonal production and surpluses, giving due recognition in the course of such efforts to the laws of supply and demand. This simple pledge ushered in a new era of mutual effort between [grocery food] chains and farmers through Producer-Consumer campaigns. Within a few days the chains had begun to make good on this promise in whole-hearted fashion; forty-four food distributing chains were pooling their far-reaching facilities to move a surplus of beef to meet the critical need of another distressed agricultural industry.
-- p. 15
National Association of Food Chains and McPhee, D.G. (1939). A Business Approach to Farm Surpluses. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Food Chains. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112069610621
"When the Farmer Needs a Friend"
The National Association of Food Chain’s “Co-Operative Producer-Consumer Campaign” was created to help producers promote foods directly to consumers. The foods selected for promotion were generally the subject of surpluses that could cause a low rate of return to producers. As described by Douglas G. McPhee, “When plentiful crops promise him no return (or a return far too small to reward him for his labor) the farmer needs a friend.” The food chain association acted as that friend and undertook marketing efforts to encourage consumers to buy these troubled products. The first of these efforts, “The National California Canned Peach Sale” of 1936 was a success and was followed by other campaigns directed at selling lamb, apples, and eggs, among many other products. The “National Holidays’ Turkey Campaign” of 1936 effectively stoked demand and turned a potentially disastrous glut of turkeys into a sales increase of 46 percent by the association’s grocery stores.
Two elements of this campaign are relevant to the development of the Beltsville Small White: (1) the Producer-Consumer Campaign’s to encourage turkey purchasing as part of its 1936 and 1937 “National Holidays’ Turkey Campaigns” and (2) a later survey of retail consumers’ attitudes about poultry purchasing preferences that represented the impetus for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s effort to develop a smaller turkey. As described in The Chain Food Store, the National Association of Food Chains elaborated:
In these campaigns the food chains have demonstrated that they can be of practical aid in one of the most distressing problems confronting agriculture [imbalances between producer supply and consumer demand]. Moreover, the cooperative program goes even further. It now provides many services and adaptations to meet particular needs of producers concerned. It includes interpreting to producers the needs and desires of the consumer. For example, following a campaign to sell turkeys, producers requested information from the food chains regarding consumer wants in turkeys. The survey made by the National Association of Food Chains in response to this request provided valuable data for turkey raisers and distributors regarding consumer preferences and needs….
…the chains gathered data from all sections of the United States on the size and type of turkey which their millions of customers prefer to buy. Such matters as packaging, grading and labeling have been studied in the same way. The benefits to producers, distributors and consumers which such studies offer can be readily recognized.
-- p. 19; 29
National Association of Food Chains. (1940). The Chain Food Store. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Food Chains, Incorporated. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b668097
But turkey “producers, distributors and consumers” were not the only parties who made use of this survey information. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program to develop a new smaller breed of turkey for the home market was already underway, the agricultural scientists leading this effort took interest in this consumer survey conducted by the National Association of Food Chains. Stanley J. Marsden, the lead researcher behind the Beltsville Small White describes how the results of this survey were used:
In 1933, plans were made for a [U.S. Department of Agriculture] breeding project designed to develop, through pedigree breeding, a new variety of turkey. At that time, most of the turkeys raised in the United States had dark-colored plumage, were medium to large in size, and had poor meat conformation. Observations of market demand by various individuals including the author suggested strongly that home consumers of turkey meat wanted relatively small birds.
In 1936, a survey was made [by the National Association of Food Chains] to test this theory and it was reported (1) that 87 per cent of the home consumer demand was for birds weighing between 3.63 and 6.80 kilograms (8 and 15 pounds) New York dressed (blood and feathers removed). It also was obvious that all consumers wanted meaty, well-finished birds free from dark-colored pinfeathers.
In light of this information, breeding objectives for the new turkey were set up as follows:
1. White plumage
2. Small size, averaging, alive, 6.58 and 3.97 kilograms (14 1/2 and 8 3/4 pounds) for males and females respectively, at mature market age of 24 weeks.
-- p. 32
Marsden, S. J. (1967). The Beltsville small white turkey. World’s Poultry Science Journal, 23(1), 32-42.
The efforts to develop this small white turkey were documented in several U.S. Department of Agriculture reports and articles. Stanley J. Marsden described the new breed in a short talk, “What’s New in Turkeys” recorded on October 25, 1945. A transcription appears in Timely Farm Topics, Number 46a, Farm Science Serves the Nation, Number 25 at: https://archive.org/details/CAT31305611. Here is an excerpt:
As everyone knows, the turkey was here in the New World long before the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Why, then — has It taken so long to make this noble bird more efficient and more useful?
One reason is the fact that turkeys are extremely susceptible to certain diseases. Before the scientists could go to work on a program for breeding better turkeys, they had to get the health problem in hand so farmers could raise turkeys without heavy losses.
With the health problem under control, the, next step was to develop turkeys that would satisfy the most exacting taste. . .a small plump bird for the average family…a larger bird for the hotel and restaurant trade. And thanks to scientific breeding, these turkeys have broader breasts, plumper legs, and — I’m glad to report — they have less neck!
Some of you may already be acquainted with the “Beltsville Small White” turkey developed at the Department’s Research Center at Beltsville, Maryland. This bird has rather short legs, an abbreviated neck, and plenty of breast meat. It is breeding true to type, more than meeting early expectations, and is well started in commercial channels.
-- p. 1
USDA Publications on the Beltsville Small White Turkey
Other U.S. Department of Agriculture publications detailed further advantages of this new breed. Here is a sample:
Marsden, S.J. (1945). The Beltsville Small White Turkey. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Administration. Bureau of Animal Industry, Number 31, Revised. Available at: https://archive.org/details/CAT31377401
During the last 15 years there has been a simultaneous increase in the number of turkeys raised and in the average body weight of turkeys produced. Prior to the war the demand for large turkeys had not kept pace with the production of them which resulted in a price differential of from 1 to 6 cents per pound in favor of smaller market turkeys for family use. During the period of meat shortage in the war emergency there has been a great increase in the demand for the heavier birds by institutional users and this demand obliterated the prewar price differential. However, the demand for smaller sized turkeys on the part of family consumers seems to be based on sound considerations and is likely to restore the prewar price differential when meat supplies equal or exceed demand.
To meet the need for a family-size, handy-weight bird, the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated in 1934, the Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, Md., an experimental project on the development of a small-type turkey. By 1941 a small-type turkey had been developed which satisfactorily met the specifications, that had been set up for a bird of this type and distribution of surplus eggs was begun to State agricultural colleges for further testing under general field conditions. Since then the Bureau has continued to distribute surplus eggs to the State stations and through them the stock is gradually reaching turkey breeders throughout the United States.
The Bronze, White Holland, and Black varieties, the wild turkey, and White Austrian turkeys imported from Scotland were first used in the development of this small-type turkey. Later, in 1943, Broad Breasted Bronze blood was introduced. Breeding work is continuing with the latter introduction in the hope of still further improving the type.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1940). Developing a Small-Type Turkey at the Beltsville Research Center, Beltsville, MD. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Administration. Bureau of Animal Industry, Animal Husbandry Division, Number 31, revised. Available at: https://archive.org/details/CAT31377402
During the last decade there has been a simultaneous increase in the number of turkeys raised and in the average size of turkeys produced. However, there has not been a corresponding increase in the demand for the heavier birds and this has resulted in a price differential of from 1 to 6 cents per pound in favor of smaller market turkeys. This demand on the part of consumers seems to be based on sound considerations and is likely to be permanent. In view of this trend, the U. S. Department of Agriculture initiated in 1934, at the Beltsville Research Center, Beltsville, Md., an experimental project on the development of a small-type turkey. Since that time marked progress has been made but it will take several more years to develop and fix definitely the desired characteristics in this small-type turkey.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1965). Breed History and Commercial Production of the Beltsville Small White Turkey. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service, Animal Husbandry Research Division. Available at: https://archive.org/details/CAT31377402
The Beltsville Small White turkey was favorably received by the turkey industry and was admitted to the American Standard of Perfection as a new variety in 1951. Commercial production of Beltsville Small White turkeys, from a small beginning in 1947, increased to an estimated 28 percent, or about 19,000,000 of the 67,693,000 turkeys produced in 1954 After 1954, the numbers declined to an estimated 17 percent, or about 13,000,000 of the 76,741,000 turkeys raised in 1956 down to approximately 12 percent, or about 10,000,000 of the 84,724,000 turkeys raised in 1960, and 9-1/2 percent or about 9,000,000 of the 93,370,000 turkeys raised in 1963. This decline was due to the widespread use of the large white strains as fryer-roasters. In 1964, the production of “light breed” turkeys increased slightly to 11-1/2 percent, or about 11,515,000 of the 99,537,000 produced, according to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Crop Reporting Board, Washington, D.C. (POU 3-1, 1965). Of the turkeys classified as “light breeds,” nearly all are presumed to be Beltsville Whites or of that breeding.
Marsden, S.J. (1952). Turkey Raising. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmer’s Bulletin, Number 1409. Available at: https://archive.org/details/CAT88204739
The Beltsville Small White turkey…was developed through pedigree breeding and selection by the U. S. Department of Agriculture at the Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, Md., from crosses of standardbred Bronze, small-type Canadian (Charlevoix) Bronze, Broad Breasted Bronze, Black, wild turkey, White Holland, Narragansett, and White Austrian varieties. It is identical in color with the White Holland but is smaller, the young toms and hens both being of a size in demand by the retail trade.
In body type, it is well fleshed, particularly on the breast, and matures for market 2 to 4 weeks earlier than the larger varieties, reaching market age in 22 to 26 weeks, or when the toms average 13 to 16 pounds alive, and the hens 8 to 9 1/2 pounds. Toms and hens mature at the same age. As with other white varieties, the Beltsville Small White dresses out well for market, as white pinfeathers are inconspicuous. It is no different from other varieties in livability, susceptibility to disease, and in requirements for feeding and management.
When given access to green range it will produce a pound of live turkey meat in a 24-week growing period on about 4.6 pounds of feed. This is about the same as that required by flocks of the standard varieties and only about 0.2 pound more than the amount required by flocks of Broad Breasted Bronze to produce a pound of live turkey in a 28-week growing period. About one-fifth to one-fourth more small-type turkeys may be raised with the same equipment and labor.
Smith, P.W. (1951). Beltsville white turkeys: A fast growing enterprise. The Agricultural Situation, 35(10), 7-8. Available at: https://archive.org/details/CAT11088157357/page/7
The Beltsville small white turkey is delicious and you should eat one to fully appreciate its merits.
In 1934 research workers at the Beltsville Research Center set out to breed a small turkey of good conformation that would be more suitable for use of small families and apartment dwellers than the heavier breeds of turkeys. They succeeded admirably. The new turkey known as the Beltsville Small White was immediately accepted by producers and has shown a steady and rapid gain in numbers.
Large Percent of Total
Beltsville Whites have spread throughout the country. This year they account for about 16 percent of all turkeys raised.
Turkeys of the Beltsville White breed are small and compact, have a broad breast and relatively short legs and neck. At mature market age (24 weeks) the toms average about 15 pounds liveweight and the hens about 9 pounds. In addition to being of good conformation and of desirable weight these turkeys are excellent layers.
The 1965 report Breed History and Commercial Production of the Beltsville Small White Turkey. mentions that the Beltsville Small White was admitted to the [American] Standard of Perfection in 1951. This is a guide developed and maintained by the American Poultry Association to specify in detail the features of different breeds of poultry, including turkey. The standards are designed for those who work with breeding activities, as well as for “fanciers’” who show poultry competitively, much like the American Kennel Club maintains its Judges’ Study Guides for dog breeders and competitive dog showers, or “conformers.” As stated in the 1953 edition of the Standard of Perfection,
The American Poultry Association, Incorporated, through its STANDARD OF PERFECTION, has not only labored to standardize and improve the equality of poultry along STANDARD–beautiful and productive–lines, but the Association has also endeavored to extend the spirit of the fancier and the breeder into a great and broad fellowship, which should create a general sentiment of justice, fairness, and loyalty between all its members and all poultry interests….The purpose of the Standard is to establish ideals for shape, size and color which are practical and useful, as well as symmetrical and attractive.
-- p. 11; 44
American Poultry Association (1953). The American Standard of Perfection, Illustrated: A Complete Description of All Recognized Varieties of Fowls. Guthrie, OK: American Poultry Association, Incorporated. Available at: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009169008
The American Poultry Association laid out its requirements for weight, size, and color for the Beltsville Small White on page 569 of the 1953 edition of the Standard:
The "Tom That Got Into [the] White House"
President Harry Truman was presented with a Beltsville Small White Turkey on December 13, 1948 by the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. As documented by the New York Times in a story titled, “President Will Feast 25 at Yule in Missouri; ‘Tom That Got Into White House’ Is On Menu” (December 14, 1948, p. 34), the unnamed Times reporter wrote,
President and Mrs. Truman expect to have about twenty-five of their kinfolk for Christmas dinner at their home in Independence, MO, and today they received two turkeys for the feast.
One of the birds was a mere ‘apartment-sized’ Beltsville white turkey of fifteen pounds, but the other was a forty-pound bronze from Minnesota….
Mr Truman was photographed with the live birds on the rear porch of his office. He chucked them under the chin and the birds flapped their wings vigorously, giving the camera men some action shots.
The white bird was of the breed developed by the Department of Agriculture at the experimental station at Beltsville, Md., for small apartment-dwelling families with small ovens….
In 1967 the person most responsible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture program behind the development of the Beltsville Small White summed up the state of the breed thusly,
This turkey was bred by the United States Department of Agriculture at Beltsville, Maryland, and was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1951 as a distinct variety characterized by its relatively small size. It is broad breasted in conformation and is able to reproduce efficiently without artificial aid. An average of about 11 per cent of United States turkey production for the years 1960 through 1965 consisted of turkeys wholly or predominantly of Beltsville Small White breeding. About 77 per cent of these were marked as fryer-roasters. Beltsville Small White stock has been widely distributed in the United States and has been sent to many other countries.
Marsden, S.J. (1967). The Beltsville Small White Turkey. World’s Poultry Science Journal, 23(1), 32-42. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1079/WPS19670008
“To Save Them, We Have to Eat Them”
The popularity of the Beltsville Small White was relatively short lived. It is considered to be endangered now. As described by the Livestock Conservancy:
The Beltsville Small White turkey’s success was short lived and by the 1970’s it was nearly extinct. Although considered a fine bird for family use, it was less well received by the hotel and restaurant trade or by processors that desired a larger bird from which they could obtain more “slices.” The Broad Breasted White (or Large White) turkey, therefore, came to overshadow the Beltsville because, when slaughtered at a young age, the Broad Breasted White fit the processor’s niche for a smaller turkey but had the ability to grow substantially heavier weights for the commercial food trade. By 1965, the new Broad Breasted White had nearly taken over the turkey market. Despite this, the Beltsville Small White still had advantages. Beltsvilles had good reproductive qualities, including the ability to mate naturally, and so could be selected, bred, and maintained by small-scale producers. In contrast, Broad Breasted White turkeys generally required artificial insemination for reproduction….
Today the Beltsville Small White is quite rare and kept by few exhibition breeders. A research flock exists at the Iowa State University; however, public access to this flock is almost non-existent. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in this variety. Efforts are underway to locate and conserve any remnant flocks in the United States and Canada.
Livestock Conservancy (undated). Beltsville Small White Turkey. Available at: https://livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/beltsville
Some small producers and farmers are working to preserve this breed of turkey. Julie Gauthier is a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and owns a small farm where she is working to save the Beltsville Small White.
Gauthier’s day job is a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But during the early mornings, evenings and weekends she raises heritage poultry – rare birds that Gauthier hopes to preserve by reintroducing to homestead farming.
Her most recent project is the conservation of the Beltsville Small White Turkey.
‘I’m out to prove that these breeds are valuable and we should hang on to them,” she said.
To save them, we have to eat them.’
Bettis, K. (November 16, 2014). Wake Forest farm is conserving a rare Thanksgiving turkey. The News & Observer. Available at: https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/wake-county/article10132940.html
The Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and the American Poultry Association posted a short video of Dr. Gauthier standing next to a Beltsville Small White Turkey. She explains the origin of the breed, its unique characteristics, and what should be done to help. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkOcF-jsYWg
A new appreciation of these heritage breeds is apparent among small producers and the larger culinary world. In 2014 the staff of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated held a taste test for heritage turkeys. Here is what they found:
The turkeys we unpacked were a far cry from the usual round, pale, plump supermarket turkey. All featured startlingly long legs and wings, a more angular breast and high keel bone, almost bluish-purple dark meat (a sign of well-exercised birds), and traces of dark pinfeathers in the skin around the tail. When we cooked one set according to a standard method, we also found their flavor worlds apart from ordinary turkey—far more rich and flavorful. We then roasted all seven types of birds again according to Cook’s Illustrated recipe customized to their unusual anatomy, and their flavor was even more extraordinary.
Tasters raved about the ‘buttery,’ ‘nutty-sweet,’ ‘incredibly satisfying, rich flavor’ of the meat. The biggest revelation was the white meat. Tasters found their favorite samples ‘amazing,’ ‘unctuous and silky,’ with ‘sweet, succulent flavor,’ and a texture that was ‘perfectly tender’ and ‘really moist.’
Cook’s Illustrated. (November, 2014). Heritage Turkeys. Available at: https://www.cooksillustrated.com/taste_tests/1559-heritage-turkeys