Virginia Tech helped hatch modern turkey industry
A.L. Dean was much more interested in birds such as warblers and robins than he was in turkeys when he was the head of the Department of Poultry Science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the 1920s.
But when Dean received a letter from a young Virginia Cooperative Extension agent from Rockingham County in 1922 inquiring about the possibility of artificially raising turkeys, Dean’s interest in turkeys took off.
That agent was Charles Wampler. What followed in the years after Dean offered Wampler encouragement in this new farming technique not only altered the life of these two men, but also changed the turkey industry forever. Wampler is regarded as the father of the modern turkey industry.
It all started with just 59 poults on Wampler’s first attempt after Dean’s advice. The U.S. turkey industry now raises more than 240 million turkeys a year in a similar manner. More than 22 million turkeys are eaten over Christmas.
At the start of their relationship, Dean provided the research and knowledge that Wampler, the Extension agent, put into practice. That partnership helped grow a multibillion-dollar industry that provides jobs around the world. The model of putting the knowledge of researchers into the hands of Extension agents and the public continues at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Virginia Tech today.
“Without a doubt, this early partnership is why we have the turkey industry we have today,” said Paul Siegel, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Animal and Poultry Sciences who knew both men. “A.L. would throw 15 or 20 ideas out to Charles and Charles knew which ideas to run with.”
Wampler wrote to land-grant universities across the country in 1922 about the prospect of raising turkeys similar to how chickens were being raised – in houses and without the hens. Dean was the only person who wrote Wampler back. Dean encouraged him to try at least 100 eggs and before long Wampler was hatching poults in a 12-by-14 barn heated with a kerosene brooder stove.
Though Wampler left Extension in 1927 after his new business, Wampler’s Feed and Seed, was taking off, he remained a staunch supporter of using Extension to share the knowledge he was creating in his new operations.
“He wanted to share his ideas with others and make sure that the turkey industry flourished not only in Virginia, but around the country,” Siegel said. “Extension bulletins were published with the new knowledge and he was eager to share what he was learning along the way with others.”
And Wampler, a pioneer of new ideas, had a lot of information to share.
Over the years, he was responsible for raising turkeys year-round instead of only in the spring. He accomplished this by using artificial lighting indoors. He also was a responsible for incorporating the force-draft incubator, which increased production. Wampler was the first producer to use contract growers and he pioneered vertical integration – models that are now industry standard. The list of ideas and ways that Wampler and his family moved the turkey industry into its modern state is vast.
Wampler did more than just raise turkeys, though. He was an avid supporter of the industry and worked hard to get America to embrace the bird that Ben Franklin wanted to be our national symbol.
Wampler started the National Turkey Federation and served as its president for five years. He was instrumental in getting the Federal School Lunch Program to start buying turkeys, which helped to make the meat more widespread throughout the country. In the 1950s, Wampler was photographed presenting then-Vice President Richard Nixon with official Thanksgiving turkey – though the birds were not given “presidential pardons” at that point.
“We owe a great deal to the Wamplers for all they did to get the industry going,” said Siegel.
Dean died in 1964 after a long career at Virginia Tech. Wampler died in 1976, leaving behind a legacy of innovation in the turkey industry that his family carried on. Charles Wampler Jr. ran the business for a number of years and when he retired in 1998, the company was the seventh largest poultry company in the nation.
William “Bill” Wampler then took the helm of the company and continued to expand the family’s legacy in the poultry industry. He was named to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Hall of Fame in 2004. He passed away in 2014.
Over the years, the Wampler family has given generously to the college and Virginia Tech. A number of rooms around campus are named for the family.
Students often gather in the Wampler Conference Room in Litton-Reaves Hall, which is adorned with black-and-white photos showing the roots of the turkey industry and images of the Wamplers as the company grew.
Both Wampler Sr. and Wampler Jr. were on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Bill was a member of the Virginia Tech Ut Prosim Society, and his wife, Bonnie Lou, is currently a member. Wampler Jr. is a member, as was his late wife, Dorothy.
“It’s not only Virginia Tech that owes a great deal of gratitude to Dean and the Wampler family,” said Dave Gerrard, the head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. “Anyone who enjoys a turkey this holiday season has these people to thank for it.”