By Dan Lemke
The west wall of Carl and Sharlene Wittenburg’s Alexandria, Minn., shed is adorned with photos and newspaper clippings recounting their journey to raise the 2017 Presidential turkey flock.
As chair of the National Turkey Federation at the time, Carl, Sharlene and a group of Douglas County 4-H’ers raised and delivered turkeys to the White House for their ceremonial pardon from President Donald Trump prior to Thanksgiving.
Hanging on the opposite wall is a woven banner proclaiming “Turkey is Family,” the slogan Carl selected for the theme of his year as National Turkey Federation president. It’s an apt description of not only the Wittenburg’s history, but Minnesota’s turkey industry.
“Both sides of our family are in the turkey business,” Sharlene says. “But also, as independent turkey growers, we are like a family because we are all in the same boat.”
Minnesota is the No. 1 turkey producing state in the country, annually raising about 42 million to 45 million birds. That sizeable production is driven by about 450 farming families, most of which have been in the business for several generations.
More than 80 years ago, a group of the state’s first-generation turkey farmers came together to share their experiences and learn from each other. The growers also met with researchers from the University of Minnesota. The visionaries saw the need to pool resources and work together to learn, improve and grow the industry. The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association was formed in 1939 to serve that purpose.
“The common thread was the growers wanted to pool their resources to leverage their voices, whether it was for legislative concerns or to fund research that solves problems and promotes the industry,” says Steve Olson, MTGA executive director.
Olson says many of the concerns at the time MTGA was formed still exist today.
“Growers want to improve their ability to grow turkeys and adapt to change,” Olson says.
Dan LemkeCONTINUING TRADITION: All three generations of the Peterson family in Cannon Falls have served on the MTGA board. Patriarch Dale Peterson began raising turkeys in 1939. His son, Dick, took over the business, and Dick’s son, John, returned to the farm in 2008.
Over the years, Olson says many farmers adapted from being diversified to more specialized and focused on turkey production. But it’s not only the farmers who have changed — the birds have, too. Through research, including genome sequencing and better nutrition, turkey efficiency has skyrocketed.
“Growers used to raise birds for 21 weeks to get a 21-pound bird. Now they can raise a 45-pound bird in 21 weeks using half the feed,” Olson says.
MTGA was created by farmer leaders who saw greater potential for turkey production in Minnesota than was being realized. For many years, turkeys were pasture-raised. Young turkeys would be hatched indoors in the spring and raised inside for a short time before being placed in pastures. Birds would grow on the range until fall, when they would be harvested. As a result, turkey production and consumption were very seasonal.
“The growers had a lot of vision,” says Lara Durben, MTGA communications and assistant executive director. “Looking back into the 1950s and 1960s, they already had a vision for year-round turkey production to reach more consumers.”
Today, most turkey farming is done year-round, ensuring a consistent supply of turkey products. More convenient, ready-to-eat turkey products are also available through retail and food service outlets, which has created more consistent turkey demand.
Olson says farmers set the direction of the organization.
“Our major purpose is to bring information to farmers about regulations, markets and research,” he says.
Outreach efforts include events such as a summer education conference and the Midwest Poultry Federation conference held each winter. These events offer turkey farmers a venue for the latest information and a place to connect with fellow farmers.
“Turkey farmers can tend to be isolated,” says producer Dick Peterson, Cannon Falls. “But I don’t think turkey producers think of themselves as competitors, they think of themselves as people in the same boat.”
Dick’s father, Dale Peterson, started raising turkeys in the Cannon Falls area in 1939. Dick later joined the operation. In 2008, Dick’s son, John Peterson, returned to the farm and opened Ferndale Market, raising and marketing range-raised turkeys and specialty products. All three generations of Petersons have served on the MTGA board.
“My dad was on the board in the 1960s, and I know he enjoyed getting to know a lot of people he wouldn’t have otherwise,” Dick says. “That’s probably the highlight for me — bringing people together who are doing the same thing.”
“I think in all of life we can probably accomplish more by working together than trying to go it alone,” John adds. “So, the research that has been done on all of our behalf has certainly produced results that none of us could have done on our own.”
Dan LemkeWORKING TOGETHER: Dick Peterson, a Cannon Falls, Minn., turkey grower, says his dad served on the MTGA board in the 1960s. Later on, Dick served on the board as well. The benefits? Learning the latest about the industry and networking with other growers.
Many MTGA members view that collaboration as a strength of the organization. Strong connections between farmers, researchers and industry partners have helped Minnesota turkey farmers weather some heavy storms. An outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza in Minnesota in 2015 is an example.
The HPAI outbreak impacted 109 Minnesota poultry farms and affected nearly 9 million birds. Working with state agencies, researchers and legislators, MTGA was able to provide updated information about the deadly outbreak to poultry producers. The timely flow of information helped farmers learn and adapt their biosecurity practices as a result.
Serving on the board of directors of any organization takes time and commitment, and it’s no different for MTGA. Olson says having strong farmer leaders is vital to keeping MTGA relevant.
“Farmers want to focus on the day-to-day operation of their farms, but once they get on the board they get a better perspective on the industry,” Olson says. “They run their own farms better because they see the bigger picture.”
Pete Klaphake’s father, Rick Klaphake, served as MTGA president, and his uncle Leon Klaphake has been an MTGA board member. As a third-generation turkey farmer from Melrose, Pete’s seen first-hand the value of having a collective voice.
“You do have a lot of people who are going through the same things as you,” he says. “They have experiences we can learn from.”
Dan LemkeADDING VALUE: John Peterson, Dick’s son, opened Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, where he markets range-raised turkeys and specialty products.
“It’s all about bringing growers together, connecting as colleagues and friends with a collective purpose,” Durben says. “They’re able to collaborate and share ideas. It’s inspiring for us to be a conduit for that process.”
MTGA is celebrating its 80th anniversary through a series of videos highlighting some of the state’s turkey farming families. Those videos will be showcased at the 2019 MTGA Summer Conference, held June 26-28, as well as at the Minnesota State Fair. Other activities will take place throughout the year, including at the Summer Conference and around Thanksgiving.
To learn more, visit minnesotaturkey.com.Lemke is a freelance writer based in Eagle Lake.