Although the eagle is our national bird, some of our founding fathers wanted the turkey instead but decided against it since we eat them. Even so, turkeys are still the quintessential American bird. The broad breasted white turkey was breed to fill the need for the perfect roasting bird. It is a huge beautiful bird with well-formed breast that we’ve all enjoyed at our Thanksgiving feasts. Turkey should not be just for Thanksgiving though but who would cook a bird that big for a typical evening meal. To start with, it takes a long time to roast a bird of that size but probably more importantly, you would have left overs forever! What a waste.
In the 1960’s, breeders decided it would be a great idea to have the well-formed broad breasted white turkey but in a size more like a chicken. That way, Americans could enjoy roast turkey anytime and hopefully it would become a staple like roast beef or a pork loin. They looked to the Beltsville whites since they were a small turkey that reproduced well but they could never get the meaty breast like the broad breasted turkeys. So, they crossed the Beltsville with the broad breasted to increase the breast meat but were disappointed with their ability to reproduce. It seemed they would never have a small turkey with a well-formed breast that also breed naturally and was productive.
Dr. J. R. Smyth Jr. from the University of Massachusetts decided to try working with the Royal Palm turkey. He started with an exhibition strain that showed good breast fleshing and conformation and crossed them with the best broad-breasted whites he could find. From that first cross, he hand selected the ones that were the closest to his desired bird. He continued this meticulous selection process with the second generation and then again with the 3rd generation until he had the bird he wanted. It was a small turkey that was well fleshed. Walla, the midget white was born.
As often happens with our colleges, budget problems hit and Dr. Smyth was forced to cease his breeding program. He gave his flock to a farm worker who later exchanged them to a breeder in Wisconsin. Six of his original flock (two toms and four hens) ended up with Dr. B.C. Wentworth of the University of Wisconsin after recognizing the identification wing tags. Dr. Wentworth was a former student of Dr. Smyth’s and was glad to continue his important work with the midget whites. He very purposefully bred this small flock and kept individual records which proved useful in singling out particular traits. He culled the less desirable traits and kept the birds with the most desirable.
The result of Wentworth’s meticulous breeding was a breed that was now set in its standard. A solid white bird that averages eight pounds for a hen and 13 pounds for a tom yet are well fleshed and lay on average 60-80 eggs per season. It seemed that Wentworth had created the perfect turkey yet commercial breeders were not interested. When Dr. Wentworth retired in the 90’s, his flock was disbursed with some going to the USDA facility in Beltsville, Maryland. Maybe that’s why some people think the Beltsville white and the midget white are related but they are not and should never be breed together, unless for your personal use of course.
The trail gets a little sketchy after that as I could find very little information on the whereabouts of the remaining birds. Obviously a few dedicated breeders held on to them and continue to see the importance of breeding them or we would not have them today. There are a few small breeders scattered throughout the country and at least one commercial breeder. Privett Hatchery in New Mexico raise and hatch their own midget whites and sell them through their hatchery as well as through many other mail order hatcheries. If you contact a hatchery about buying these birds, ask them if they own the flock or if they drop ship from New Mexico. What I’ve found is they all say they get them out of New Mexico. If I ever get down that way, I’m going to drop in and pay them a visit.
So, why the renewed interest in the midget white? I had never heard of them until I read an article in the ALBC newsletter about a taste test among many heritage breed turkeys and the broad breasted white. As explained in this article, the midget white won hands down.
Once this article was published, foodies began requesting this great tasting turkey. Since eating is one of my favorite pass times and I love breeding birds, I knew I had to have some. Now, we love to fill our freezers each year with a bird that you cannot buy from the grocery. Our family loves to join us on special occasions to enjoy this great bird along with our true southern dressing! This turkey's history is not complete though because we have a long way to go before we know they are safe from extinction. We need you to make history buy obtaining the best stock possible and breeding methodically to ensure we keep the quality in the bird while spreading it across this land.