Talking Turkey for Thanksgiving

How Minnesota farmers tackled the avian flu outbreak

Steve Olson Turkey
photo by david bowman

Steve Olson has been executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Grower’s Association for 15 years; the group represents farmers in the nation’s leading turkey producing and processing state—some 450 farms raise roughly 45 million birds per year. 2015 has been a particularly difficult year for turkey growers, with an avian flu resulting in the deaths of 5.5 million birds. But supply is strong for this Thanksgiving, and growers have quickly enacted safety measures to prevent another outbreak.

“Part of the reason Minnesota is first in turkey production is because we’re close to corn and soybeans, which are primary sources of feed. That means less transportation, which makes it more affordable. And when we raise birds we also have the crop lands to apply the bird manure to for fertilizer—it’s synergistic, a natural cycle.”

“What’s impressed me from the day I started here is how astute in business poultry farmers and turkey growers are. Many of them are third-, fourth-, even fifth- and sixth-generation—to be in any kind of business that long, they have to understand business cycles. They know good times and bad times, and how to plan for both.”

“There’s a misconception that turkeys are stupid, but no: They’re very curious. When you go into the building they’ll check you out. They might back off to give you some space, but within a few minutes, when they see you’re not a threat, they’ll come closer. When they get older they can get a little more aggressive, especially the males—strutting and showing off. If I have my wedding ring on they’ll start pecking at it, not always aggressively, just out of curiosity.”

“The avian flu was a game changer. For those who had affected flocks, they lost a third of their income this year. Whether a farmer had an infected flock or not, it changed the way they do business. We’ve always had disease-prevention practices in place, but this virus is different from anything we’ve seen before.”

“We’ve never had a foreign animal disease in commercial poultry to this scale and magnitude. The way the virus moved was random, and unlinked in the way it started to show up. We can’t build a dome over the state, but we need to figure out how to keep it out, and that means controlling what we can control. Anything touching the ground outside the barn doesn’t touch the inside. The State of Minnesota is able to respond quickly [when there is an outbreak], but last spring we weren’t able to keep up with it. So really, the person in the barn every day is the expert on biosecurity, putting a system in entryways to control that exposure from the outside.”

“The disease is neurological, spread through coming in contact with something infected such as water or fecal matter. There’s a financial loss but there’s an emotional toll for growers as well. I was talking to one just the other day about the impact of watching the birds die because of this virus, and not being able to do anything about it. And having to depopulate healthy birds [to stop the spread of the virus] goes against everything they’ve ever done in their career.”

“We were able to eradicate the flu. Now we’ll be watching this fall the wild birds migrating to winter grounds in Mexico. There’s a lot of nervousness—this spring, no matter what growers did or didn’t do, the virus was still getting into farms. There were repeated stories of farmers going into barns in the morning to check their flock and the birds weren’t acting the way they usually act. There’s a misconception that farmers don’t care, and they do. The purpose of this bird’s life is to sustain the lives of others. And so farmers really do care an awful lot about these animals.”

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.