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Musings: Turkey shortage reminds us of when Sonoma was a turkey empire

Popular Thanksgiving staple got its modern wings on Denmark Street.|

Turkeys will be in short supply this holiday season according to reports in the national media. A deadly avian flu has killed more than 45 million turkeys since the start of 2022, and apparently it is not waning. Turkey farmers have also cut down on the number of birds they are raising for market.

Additionally, even if you can find a turkey, it’s going to cost you a lot more than in prior years.

Ironically, we’re going to feel it here in Sonoma, which at one time provided more than 60% of the world’s turkey breeding stock, making it the world’s virtual turkey capital for nearly a decade.

George Nicholas, who became known as the father of the modern turkey that we see in supermarkets today, started his business right here, in Sonoma Valley. A Petaluman and graduate of UC Davis where he studied poultry breeding, George and his wife Johnnie, came to Sonoma Valley in 1939 to start Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms on Napa Road (where Scribe Winery is today).

Back in those days the big, dark-feathered “broad-breasted bronze” turkey variety was the standard of the industry.

Utilizing the genetics he learned at Davis, George improved the breed and over time, developed the “broad-breasted white” turkey that revolutionized the poultry industry. He was the world’s first major breeder of the white-feathered turkey, which was preferred because its nearly invisible pinfeathers made it more appealing in the supermarket display cases.

From his ranch on Napa Road in Sonoma Valley his business expanded to other Valley locations and even out of state. Soon, he would become a national institution.

In 1978, George and his shareholders sold the company to the International Basic Economy Corporation of New York for close to $10 million. It was estimated at the time that Nicholas turkey eggs produced 140 million turkeys throughout the world.

George Nicholas didn’t raise turkeys for meat but rather as breeding stock for the development and improvement of his new white-feathered variety. On this path, he improved and perfected the process of artificial insemination, which in turn resulted in the turkey hens laying fertilized eggs. It is the eggs that Nicholas sold around the world to others who hatched and raised the birds for market.

I worked for George Nicholas during the summer between my junior and senior year at Sonoma Valley High School. His son, Bob, and I had been school chums from grammar school and played on the SVHS football team. We spent most of the time building fence in the hills above Lovall Valley that were part of the Nicholas property then. But we also worked in the brooder houses.

Nicholas Turkey Farms was a huge operation back then. And I don’t recall Sonoma ever having a shortage of turkeys. In fact, for many years the Sonoma Kiwanis Club sponsored a turkey barbecue in the Plaza. Several executives of the Nicholas company who were also Kiwanians led the effort.

They used deboned turkey breasts, which they marinated in a sauce that I believe included white wine, Good Seasons salad dressing mix and soy sauce. Then the breasts were barbecued and basted with more of the sauce.

To this day, that is my preferred way to enjoy turkey meat.

One way or another, we all will pay more to enjoy turkey this year.

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