The ‘Gilfeather’ Turnip: A Vermont Heirloom Variety

Learn how this root vegetable’s unique appearance, taste, and history have made it a source of pride for one small Vermont town.

| Fall 2018

  • turnips
    Although there's still some debate about whether the 'Gilfeather' is truly a turnip, there's no question that the vegetable is steeped in Vermont history.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • vermont-state-vegetable
    Governor Peter Shumlin signs the bill declaring the 'Gilfeather' turnip to be Vermont's official state vegetable.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • turnip
    'Gilfeather' turnips often grow to be softball-sized or even larger.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • john-Gilfeather
    Farmer John Gilfeather first brought his bulbous, sweet turnips to market in the early 1900s.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • students-lobbying
    Wardsboro Elementary students and teachers lobbied for the 'Gilfeather's' new status at their state house.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • turnips-growing
    These sweet turnips grow best in loose, rich, well-drained soil.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • turnip-cart
    Every year, Wardsboro, Vermont, holds a festival to celebrate the unique root vegetable that was first cultivated in their town.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • turnip-festival
    There are prizes at the 'Gilfeather' Turnip Festival for the largest turnip, the turnip with the best name, and more.
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library
  • turnip-winner
    The Grand Champion of the Festival, Braiden won last year with a 'Gilfeather' that was 25.8 pounds (with greens).
    Courtesy Friends of the Wardsboro Library

  • turnips
  • vermont-state-vegetable
  • turnip
  • john-Gilfeather
  • students-lobbying
  • turnips-growing
  • turnip-cart
  • turnip-festival
  • turnip-winner

What began as a school project became formal legislation when the students and teachers of Wardsboro Elementary successfully lobbied their state government to make the ‘Gilfeather’ turnip Vermont’s official vegetable. The turnip had long been a Vermont favorite, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the governor signed a bill proclaiming its new status. And though there’s still some debate about what the root vegetable actually is — it’s the shape of a rutabaga, but white like a turnip, with a taste that’s a cross between the two — there’s no question that the ‘Gilfeather’ is steeped in Vermont history. The current owners of the original Gilfeather Farm, located on Gilfeather Road in Wardsboro, Vermont, still grow a patch of ‘Gilfeather’ turnips each season.

The first record of this heirloom vegetable dates back to the early 1900s, when Wardsboro farmer John Gilfeather began bringing the bulbous, sweet turnips to market. They became so popular that it’s said Gilfeather would put notices in newspapers to announce his crops were available for sale, advising they should be preordered because they were going to sell out. There was nothing else like it, and there couldn’t be; Gilfeather cut the tops and roots off each of the thousands of turnips he sold, ensuring that no buyers could propagate the plant for themselves.

Because of this secrecy, no one knows precisely where the unusual turnip came from. Was the first harvest a happy accident? Is the vegetable a European import whose origin Gilfeather never revealed? The Friends of the Wardsboro Library believe the most likely explanation is that, with care and no shortage of horticultural talent, Gilfeather hybridized the unique cultivar himself. The questions about the plant’s origin continue into the present day, because even now there’s debate about whether the heirloom can truthfully be called a “turnip.”

One Rare Root Vegetable

Bulky and softball-sized, the ‘Gilfeather’ grows to look like a rutabaga, complete with leaves the color and shape of rutabaga greens. However, rather than the traditional yellowish color of rutabagas, the flesh of the vegetable is white like a turnip. When allowed to go to seed, the growing ‘Gilfeather’ has the close-branched architecture of a turnip, with flowers more like those of a rutabaga — but unlike either plant, there’s no purple top on this root vegetable. The ‘Gilfeather’ conspicuously lacks the expected “bite” of a turnip or rutabaga; instead, its taste is mild, sweet, and delightfully creamy. When officially tested, the University of Vermont claimed that the ‘Gilfeather’ is indeed genetically a turnip, but still the debate continues, with some seed companies listing the plant under their “rutabaga” category.



The seemingly impossible task of categorizing the ‘Gilfeather’ is of no consequence to Wardsboro. Toward the end of every October, after the first hard frost that gives the vegetable its characteristic sweetness, the town holds their annual ‘Gilfeather’ Turnip Festival. Started as a fundraiser by the Friends of the Wardsboro Library, the event has grown into a proud celebration full of ‘Gilfeather’ turnip recipes; craft vendors selling turnip-themed clothing and houseware; a contest with categories for everything, from the biggest turnip to the turnip with the best name; and of course, a chance to buy seeds and ‘Gilfeather’ turnips to take home.

This event is made possible because, despite John Gilfeather’s best efforts at secrecy, some of the seeds from his famous root vegetable made it into the hands of friends and neighbors. Gilfeather died in 1944, and it’s unclear whether he willingly gave away the secrets of the turnip before he died. What we know is that in 1977, a neighbor, Clifford Emery, happened to give a couple named Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt a small bottle of seeds that could be traced back to John Gilfeather’s famous crop. After growing the seeds and discovering vast consumer interest in the resulting vegetable, Mary Lou had the seeds tested and finally registered as an heirloom variety at the State Department of Agriculture. The Schmidts trademarked the “Gilfeather” name in 1984, ensuring the turnip would be associated with the farmer who made it famous.






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