In politics, a “turkey farm” refers to a government agency or department that is staffed primarily with political appointments and other patronage hires. In particular, it is used to refer to hires that are underqualified but are put in positions of power because they either support the appointer politically or financially.
A 2010 Vanderbilt University study noted that “In every administration certain agencies acquire reputations as ‘turkey farms’ or ‘dead pools.’ Positions in these agencies get filled with less qualified administrators, often by presidents under pressure to find political jobs for campaign staff, key donors, or well-connected job-seekers.”
Often, turkey farms are places where sycophants are rewarded for their political loyalty with stable or high-profile government jobs.
But in other cases, turkey farms are places to put “non-performers,” bad employees, or federal workers considered “turkeys,” so that managers can avoid the lengthy process of other alternatives, as outlined in Washington Monthly: “Not infrequently, federal managers use two traditional means of shedding non-performers. By writing glowing letters of recommendation, a boss can get a turkey promoted to a different office. Fortunately, most civil servants are too ethical to use such tactics, and anyway, you can only do that once or twice before your credibility in the bureaucracy is shot. More typically, bosses place non-performers in ‘turkey farms,’ ‘dead pools,’ or (if it is a single person) ‘on the shelf.’ By quarantining non-performers, a good manager can save the rest of the organization from their influence.”
This method of stashing subpar employees was described as a “turkey farm” during the Nixon Administration in a document referred to as the “Malek Manual,” named after Nixon’s special assistant. He first outlined this method of dealing with unwanted employees while still staying within the confines of the federal merit system.
One agency in the federal government that’s frequently accused of being a “turkey farm” is FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During the administration of George W. Bush, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s handling of the disaster exacerbated an already bad reputation, as highlighted here: “FEMA had gone through periods of obsession with unrealistic nuclear war planning, thereby making it unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. The agency became known as the ‘Turkey Farm’ because of its management by third-rate political appointees.”
A federal report noted the agency “is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, ‘a turkey farm’…where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment.”
Other agencies also have a history of being labeled “turkey farms” as well. From FCW: “Political turkey farms — agencies filled with former campaign staffers with thin resumes — made the headlines in the 1990s. In the George H.W. Bush administration, the Commerce Department became known as “Bush Gardens.”