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Four years after bird flu scare, things are looking up for Minnesota’s turkey farmers

Minnesota produces about 17 percent of the turkeys raised in the United States.

Minnesota is home to 450 turkey farms that produce about seven turkeys for every resident of the state, or roughly 42 million total.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

It’s been a tough few years for Minnesota farmers.

Tariffs on have dampened desire for Minnesota ag products overseas; changing tastes have contributed to additional slumping of dairy prices; and extreme weather’s added insult to injury, with snow collapsing barns last winter and rain forcing some farmers to leave crops in the fields this fall.

What about farms that raise turkeys, a bird that’s front of mind this time of year, and which Minnesota produces in greater numbers than any other U.S. state?

“It’s not been a great year, it’s not been terrible,” said John Zimmerman, a second-generation grower who raises turkey near Northfield.

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Turning out turkey

In 2018, Minnesota produced about 17 percent of the turkeys raised in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey.

The state is home to 450 turkey farmers who produce about seven turkeys for every resident of the state, or roughly 42 million total.

Turkeys produced by state, 2018
Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

Minnesota wasn’t always the country’s biggest turkey producer. But several advantages helped it become that, among them  that Minnesota is also a big producer of corn and soybeans means turkey feed doesn’t need to be shipped at great cost. Research at the University of Minnesota and by the industry has helped make raising turkeys more efficient. And some of the bigger turkey companies, like processor Jennie-O and Select Genetics, which breeds and hatches birds, are located here.

The bulk of Minnesota’s turkey farms are found in Southern, Central and West Central Minnesota, where the birds are generally raised in long, climate-controlled barns. Stearns and Kandiyohi counties produce the most turkeys among Minnesota counties, according to the USDA.

Falling prices

While turkey farmers have escaped some of the doom and gloom headlines about farms in the last couple years, it hasn’t been an easy stretch for them, either.

“The turkey industry has gone through about four difficult years now,” said Joel Brandenberger, the president of the National Turkey Federation.

The troubles trace back to the 2014-15 outbreak of a highly-transmittable bird flu hit.  Millions of Minnesota turkeys and chickens died from contracting it or were killed to prevent its spread.

“We had nearly eight million turkeys that had to be euthanized as a result of the bird flu,” Brandenberger said — many of which were in Minnesota.

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Turkey prices were strong in 2015: scarcer supply drove up prices. But dead birds were just the start. Both Mexico and China instituted import bans on U.S. poultry, fearing the spread of the avian flu to their countries.

That hit the Minnesota turkey industry hard: about 90 percent of turkey grown in Minnesota is shipped out of state; 15 percent of which goes to other countries, according to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

Mexico’s ban were geographically limited to affected areas and were lifted quickly. China’s was bigger and lasted longer.

“A lot of companies resumed normal production in 2016, but the export markets didn’t come back as quickly,” Brandenberger said.

On top of that, many turkey growers also produce corn and soybeans. On one hand, depressed prices for these crops due to tariffs mean cheaper turkey feed,  but they also mean lower incomes for farmers who depend on selling corn and soybeans.

Turkey growers have also been affected by weather, a factor even more volatile than global trade in recent years.

“Several have been affected by weather events — losing barns and other structures, some only now rebuilding from early spring,” wrote Abby Neu Schuft, a University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension educator who specializes in poultry said in an email.

As a result of some of these forces, turkey prices dropped and have yet to recover  to 2015 levels.

In September of this year, the most recent month of data available through the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, growers sold turkey at an average 62 cents per pound. That’s up from 53 cents a pound last September, but down from around a dollar a pound in 2015, when you adjust for inflation.

Prices received per pound of turkey, 2000-2018
Note: Prices shown in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars.
Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

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Renewed hope

In the midst of trade barriers, turkey promoters have worked to expand the use of turkey beyond where it’s often found in products like lunch meats and sausages.

“We’re working hard to make turkey more visible in the barbecue space, for example,” Brandenberger said. Turkey is a big part of barbecue in Texas, for example, so Turkey Federation representatives have been spending time in places like Tennessee and the Carolinas to increase awareness there.

This month, though, Minnesota’s turkey farmers have cause for renewed hope that prices will make more of a recovery.

In the midst of a protein shortage, the result of a swine fever that’s killed off much of the country’s meat supply, China announced mid-November that it would lift its ban on U.S. poultry imports.

Seventh District Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson applauded the country’s decision.

“This announcement is finally a step in the right direction, especially for the more than 1,200 poultry operations in my district,” he said in a statement, calling for an end to Chinese tariffs on other ag goods affecting Minnesota farmers.

Brandenberg said he hopes to see prices improve as exports firm up.

“I’d say at this moment, there’s some hope that prices will continue to stabilize, and maybe turn up a bit in 2020,” he said.