Photograph by Ansgar E. Johnson, Nat Geo Image Collection
Photograph by Ansgar E. Johnson, Nat Geo Image Collection
MagazineIn the Loupe

How Turkeys Saved Families in the Great Depression

When the U.S. economy crashed, farm wives rebounded by breeding turkeys.

This story appears in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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Turkey farming helped countless families weather the Great Depression—and it was often farm wives who ran the cottage industry. This Idaho woman, camouflaged within an impressive flock in 1940, was likely one such businesswoman.

Hatching time could be chaotic: “Turkeys in the parlor, turkeys on the chair, turkeys in the dishpan, turkeys everywhere,” exclaimed an Emmett, Idaho, newspaper in 1933. But the birds didn’t just have the run of the house. They had the hills too.

Before commercial farming overtook the family enterprise by the mid-century, says Idaho historian Madeline Buckendorf, farm kids herded the birds “much like sheep.” She still cherishes the bell her grandfather would place on the “lead” turkey’s neck so the flock could be heard “when turned out to graze on the sagebrush-covered hillsides of the canyon.”