Sign up for our free newsletter
Enter Beltsville, Md., traveling west on Powder Mill Road, and pass Biocontrol Road, Entomology Road, and the somber brick face of the Animal Manure and By-Products Lab, whose crown of pipes and ducts speaks of an urgent need for ventilation. Turn right on small, easy-to-miss Poultry Road and weave your way north through the leafy Maryland countryside.
On your left you’ll find U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Buildings 262–265. The four three-story buildings stand derelict, with boards over their ground-floor windows and vines creeping up steps and walls. They’re not much to look at now, but in the late ’30s and early ’40s, these labs housed scientists working on the frontier of their field. Like the white-coated boffins of the Manhattan Project, they had an ambitious objective. But instead of plutonium and uranium, the researchers in Buildings 262–265 experimented with White Hollands, Midget Bronzes, and Narragansetts. Their goal: to create a new breed of turkey, one that would appeal to consumers year-round instead of just on holidays.
If you happen to collect back issues of Turkey World magazine, you can see the results of their work on the cover of the July 1953 issue: a thick-bodied bird covered with snowy feathers from the back of its head to its tail.
The Beltsville Small White turkey, as it came to be known, was a success on a scale far greater than its creators imagined. Not only did it expand the turkey market, but it also became the founding genetic line of practically every turkey sold today. If you eat turkey this Thanksgiving, odds are it had an ancestor on Poultry Road in Beltsville.
The story of the Beltsville Small White is well-known—just not around here. D.C. residents think of Beltsville as a place to pass through on their way to Baltimore, but around the world it’s famous as the home of some impressive turkey pioneering. John Kucharski, director of the visitors’ center at USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), has a list of innovations that have come out of the 7,000-acre facility, including the Roma tomato, the aerosol spray can, and DEET insect repellent. Yet one development outshines them all: “We get ministers of agriculture visiting from around the world,” says Kucharski, “They say, ‘Beltsville—home of the Small White turkey!’”
That July 1953 Turkey World cover shows a bespectacled man in a bowler holding the bird. The caption identifies him as Stanley J. Marsden, “Father of the Beltsville White.” Marsden led the work that produced the new turkey, an effort that lasted from 1934 to 1941. He strove for birds with a set of characteristics that research indicated would appeal to consumers.
First, the bird needed to be smaller than other turkeys of the day. The average family couldn’t finish a big Narragansett or Bronze in one sitting, and small refrigerators made leftovers problematic. According to Julie Long, a research physiologist for BARC’s biotechnology and germplasm laboratory, a Beltsville Small White hen weighed between 6 and 8 pounds, a tom between 12 and 14. “That’s about 10 pounds lighter than the other breeds [of that time],” she says.
Second, the bird needed to be white. Dark feathers mean dark skin, which turns off consumers. After plucking, white-feathered turkeys aren’t any cleaner than dark feathered turkeys—but they look that way. The Beltsville Small White had other characteristics as well, including a greater percentage of white meat and a talent for copious egg-laying.
As was the custom both then and now, BARC handed over its creation to industry, and in 1947, the new bird made its commercial debut. It was marketed not as a mere turkey but as a “Beltsville White” and quickly became a hit. According to the November/December 1988 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, seven years after the commercial introduction of the Small White, it represented more than a quarter of total turkey production.
Being both a commercial success and good eatin’, the Beltsville Small White should have evolved into a source of regional pride. On Thanksgiving Day, Dad would carve the family Beltsville, and after dinner he’d watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the Washington Turkeys.
But instead, the bird has been almost forgotten locally. For one thing, the turkey industry didn’t keep the breed up to standard. As the market shifted back to bigger birds, some producers crossbred the White with larger turkeys. Other producers just got sloppy and let the bird drift, genetically speaking. The December 1955 issue of Turkey World—published just two years after the Beltsville’s star turn on the cover—included an article titled “Don’t Count the Beltsvilles Out!” Writer H.G. Ware issued a rallying cry for the industry to enforce rigorous breeding standards, but the downfall was already in progress.
Of course, it was a downfall only from the perspective of a breed purist. By any other standard, the Beltsville Small White continues to be a monstrous success. Its descendants live on as Large Whites, which account for more than 90 percent of the estimated 263 million turkeys that will be produced in the United States this year. As the name implies, the Large Whites are avian SUVs. They average about three times the weight of a Beltsville Small White, but some specimens far exceed that. “I heard Tyson [Foods Inc. has] broken 100 pounds,” says Kucharski.
But Large Whites aren’t a breed in the same sense as the Beltsville Small White, because creating and maintaining a purebred standard would return no profit. “Today, three companies control the commercial breed—Nicholas Turkeys, British United Turkeys, and Hybrid Turkeys,” says Long. “Each company’s birds have different characteristics, and the exact mix of breeds used to create them is highly confidential, proprietary information.”
That’s not the only thing different about today’s turkey industry, says Ed Buss, a retired professor of poultry science. Buss taught at Pennsylvania State University but made regular visits to Poultry Road. He recalls the heyday of Buildings 262–265, when turkey scientists formed a devoted, highly specialized fraternity. He remembers staying up all night observing and taking notes on the bird’s behavior; other turkeymen showed similar commitment. Modern poultry scientists, Buss thinks, don’t get out of the office enough. “You have to live [with the flock] to see what [the birds’] problems are,” he says.
Today, the talk around BARC is that Buildings 262–265 will be torn down soon. Poultry researchers such as Long, currently scattered across several buildings, will get a new home on the other side of Poultry Road. Meanwhile, scientists still keep turkeys in the coops behind the old buildings—though none are Beltsville Small Whites. “Today we use the commercial bird,” says Long, “because all our research is linked to industry needs.”
BARC scientists kept Beltsville Small Whites until the ’70s, when the last flock was shipped off to a university. The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities has uncovered only three flocks of Beltsville Small Whites in the United States and Canada, none of them near D.C.
Buss is one of the few remaining turkeymen who remembers seeing Beltsville Small Whites at the spot they were created. He recalls it as Marsden’s greatest professional accomplishment, and a handsome bird as well. “It had a beautiful round breast and made an attractive presentation,” Buss says. “It didn’t hang over like today’s birds. It stood like a turkey.”CP