MOUNT CRAWFORD — When Ronney Cornwell, 67, of Mount Crawford, first started raising turkeys in 1983, they were a lot lighter.
“You’d have a bird, 16 weeks old, weigh 13.25 pounds,” he said of heavy hens. “When these birds get 16 weeks old now, they’ll probably weigh 24 pounds — we’ve almost doubled the weight.”
And as of 2018, Americans have more than doubled the amount of turkey they eat annually since 1970, according to data from the National Turkey Federation.
However, the number of turkey operations, such as Cornwell’s, in the state has decreased, according to Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation.
The federation conducts multiple surveys, and in 2002, found that there were 380 turkey farms in the Commonwealth.
The most recent survey of turkey farmers, conducted in 2016, found that the number had dropped to 275 — a difference of 27% over 14 years.
In 1970, the average American ate 8.1 pounds of turkey per year. Estimates for last year’s per capita consumption was 16.3 pounds per person in the U.S., according to the National Turkey Federation.
The number of turkeys raised has also more than doubled, from 116.1 million to 242.5 million in 2017.
Rockingham County produces the most turkeys in the state, according to Bauhan.
The county adopted the phrase “Turkey Capital of the World” in 1950 due to Dayton man Charles S. Wampler Sr.’s practices being modeled for the modern turkey industry, according to the Virginia Association of Counties.
The turkey industry directly supports 3,267 jobs in Rockingham County, according to data from the 2018 Economic Impact Study of the Poultry Industry by John Dunham & Associates of New York.
The sector pays out $105 million annually in wages, with an average pay of $32,600 in the county.
The turkey industry also supports nearly 500 Rockingham jobs, which, along with its employers and fellow workers, contribute a combined $181.77 million in federal taxes and $104.17 million in state and local taxes.
“I think that’s a trend in agriculture, generally,” Bauhan said. “We have fewer farmers and the farms that we have left tend to be larger.”
Overall, the nation faced a small percentage decline in overall numbers and land in farms since 2012, according to data from the 2017 Farm Census.
“That’s just the economics of agriculture in the United States,” Bauhan said.
Dairy farms, both nationally and locally, have also seen this trend, according to previous interviews with Eric Paulson, executive secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Dairymen’s Association.
Along with the decrease in farms, there has also been a decrease in the number of turkey heads and turkey pounds produced in Virginia, according to data from the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
In 2002, there were a total of 24 million turkeys grown in Virginia for 530.4 million pounds.
By 2017, slightly less than 16.8 million turkeys were grown in Virginia, a decrease of 29.1%, for a total weight of more than 458.6 million pounds, a decrease of 13.5%.
In 2018, the Commonwealth’s turkey industry remained stable, raising the same number of turkeys as 2017 with a slight increase in total weight for 462 million pounds.
The nationwide increase in demand for turkey since 1970 stems from people eating turkey year round, especially through value-added products, like deli meats, Bauhan said.
“Turkeys are not just a Thanksgiving or holiday specialty anymore,” he said.
Valley companies, such as Cargill in Dayton and Virginia Poultry Growers Co-op in Hinton, both make value-added turkey products, according to Bauhan.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture does not have data on turkey production numbers since the industry is vertically integrated, said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the department.
Vertically integrated means the company owns its supply chain, and thus, the information on the amount of turkeys raised is proprietary, according to Lidholm.
“In terms of the growth of numbers of farms, that’s more dictated by the processor determining their production requirements than an individual farmer looking to get into producing and marketing poultry,” Bauhan said.
Chicken, another pillar of Rockingham’s agriculture sector, remains more popular than turkey, he said.
“There’s definitely a difference there and we believe there’s definitely room for growth in per capita consumption for turkey in the U.S.,” Bauhan said.
One potential way to further grow the industry would be a checkoff program, which exists for pork and dairy, he said.
Checkoff programs are research and promotional bodies for commodities, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.
However, the National Turkey Federation is not currently looking at a checkoff program on the federal level, according to Beth Breeding, vice president of communication and marketing for the federation.
The industry group is working on building awareness about the versatility of turkey products, such as ground turkey, and working on building trade options, she said.
“Opening new markets to turkey products is always a great thing for our members and turkey growers,” Breeding said.
Over the 36 years Cornwell has been raising poultry, international trade deals have come and gone, but the weight and speed of the turkeys he grows have both increased.
“It amazes me how fast they grow now,” Cornwell said.