Turkey Farmers Thankful To Be Working

"Aaron Rodgers," as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton named this turkey, is calm as the governor rubs his neck during an annual pre-Thanksgiving event to promote the state turkey industry. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
“Aaron Rodgers,” as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton named this turkey, is calm as the governor rubs his neck during an annual pre-Thanksgiving event to promote the state turkey industry. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota turkey growers are back in time for Thanksgiving.

Minnesota governors annually recognize the state turkey industry, the country’s largest, this time of year. But this year the light-hearted event turned to serious talk about farmers rebounding from the worst livestock disaster in United States history.

“It has been a challenging year for turkey growers in Minnesota,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “They are back in force.”

More than 9 million Minnesota chickens and turkeys died due to avian influenza last spring, about 5.5 million of them turkeys. But Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers’ Association said most farmers have restocked their flocks and he knows of no one who went out of business because of the flu outbreak.

“They know there are good years and bad years, so they put money away,” Olson said.

But they will need more money than usual in coming years as they increase biosecurity to keep the flu virus away from their birds.

Robert Orsten of Willmar, who keeps 345,000 turkey hens a year for their eggs, said his “small family farm” will need to pay up to $1.8 million by 2016 to improve its biosecurity.

Security changes farmers are making range from installing devices to disinfect everything that enters poultry barns to enclosing areas between barns so birds are not moved from one to another outdoors, where viruses are more likely.

Despite what Orsten and other farmers face financially, he was in a good mood.

“This Thanksgiving, we give special thanks,” he said, rattling off a long list of government and other organizations that helped fight bird flu earlier this year.

Olson said that consumers probably will notice no difference with turkey prices this Thanksgiving.

“There will be plenty of turkey available for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.

Stores lower turkey prices this time of year, making it a “loss leader” to attract customers to buy other groceries. However, Olson said in response to a reporter question, once the loss leader aspect disappears, turkeys may cost  $1.08 to $1.15 per bird more because, in part, of the new security in the turkey industry.

Minnesota’s 450 turkey growers usually sell 46 million turkeys a year, but the flu dropped that to 40 million this year.

No cases of bird flu have been reported this fall. Experts think the flu is transmitted by migrating ducks and geese, but some say it is more likely to be passed on in the spring than the fall.

Colleen Moriarty of Hunger Solutions Minnesota accepted $12,000 from turkey producers to help families that cannot afford food. She said she was especially thankful for the gift this year since turkey producers have has such a tough year.

Stealing the show during the traditional turkey event was an 18-week-old, 40-pound tom turkey from near Morristown.

Dayton named the turkey Aaron Rodgers after the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback who led his team over the Minnesota Vikings 30-13 less than 24 hours earlier.

Once Orsten put the turkey on a table, Dayton began petting it and it was so calm that it sat right down and placed its head down on the tabletop. At times over the years, some turkeys have escaped or at least flapped so much to startle governors and journalists covering the event.