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Iowa’s turkey industry fetes a profitable year
Iowa Correspondent

WAYLAND, Iowa — Washington County, Iowa turkey grower Tim Graber already knew he wanted to continue his family’s rich legacy of turkey farming when he started getting up at 4:30 a.m. at age 10 to help his father and grandfather fill the turkey feeders.

“Even in high school, I custom-brooded a couple flocks for some neighbors and local guys,” he said.

“I used to have a hatchery in town and would work weekends.”

Now, 20 years later, the third-generation farmer is sending off 175,000 of his own turkeys to market each year from his southeast Iowa operation, where he contracts out his flocks with West Liberty Foods, LLC in West Liberty, Iowa, one of the nation’s leading private-label manufacturers of poultry products.

“It pretty much has been a way of life and I really enjoy it,” said Graber, 30, who farms in his hometown of Wayland, Iowa, with his wife, Lisa; daughter Morgan, 3; and son, Cody, 18 months. “I enjoy the challenges.”

Graber is one of 130 Iowa turkey growers who have made 2006 a healthy and profitable year for the state’s industry, which has reached profits levels comparable to 1985, even before the end of this year, reported the Iowa Turkey Federation (ITF).

“The biggest impact for profits was the low feed prices (from corn and soybean meal),” added Graber, whose birds average between 40-42 pounds at slaughter. “The turkey prices were also high, which was due to hot summers.”

He said he is earning between 38-39 cents per pound for his turkeys.

Currently, there are three major parts of Iowa where farmers are raising turkeys: southeast Iowa, where Graber and at least three other turkey growers reside; north central Iowa around the Story City-Ellsworth, Iowa area; and the Storm Lake, Iowa area in northwest Iowa where Bill Mar Foods (Sara Lee Corp.) is located.

In the last five years alone, Iowa’s turkey production has increased 17 percent, with the U.S. turkey industry raising nearly 270 million turkeys this year and producing more than 5 billion pounds of turkey meat.

The ITF estimated that Iowa’s turkey growers will raise more than 9.5 million turkeys in 2007, which ranks Iowa ninth in U.S. turkey production.

According to Iowa State University economists, each turkey raised and processed in Iowa adds $16 to the state’s economy, which pours $152 million into the local communities of Iowa turkey growers.

The USDA recently reported that strong domestic demand is one reason for increased prices.

Since turkey is nutrient-rich, low in calories and has no saturated fat, consumers are integrating more turkey products into their meals, which is increasing demand.

Gretta Irwin, ITF executive director, said while the number of turkeys being raised is down, Iowa has experienced an increased demand this year for turkey products and the U.S. turkey industry is currently enjoying exceptional prices.

Irwin, who testified in April before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on behalf of the National Turkey Federation about Iowa’s robust turkey industry, as well as the state’s nationally-recognized, pioneering efforts to fight Avian Influenza, said Iowa has access to grain at a lower price.

“We rank fifth in the U.S. in turkey processing,” she said.

“We have conscious growers who care for their turkeys and the land where they apply their organic fertilizer.”

The ITF said what may likely explain the exponential growth of Iowa’s turkey industry is younger growers are becoming part of a new and increasing trend of second-and third-generation farmers in Iowa.

In effect, these younger turkey farmers are not only constructing new buildings, but also returning to their communities to take over the operations of their retiring parents and grandparents, Graber said.

“I feel it is very encouraging that more young farmers are getting involved,” he said. “It is going to take young farmers who want to work hard, bear the ups and downs of the markets, and put a lot on the line financially to continue to grow and maintain this industry.”

An IFT board director, Graber added that as the number of young turkey growers increases, they are also becoming more integrated within the industry.

“In this area, we are independent farmers who own the farms and turkeys,” he said.

“Most of us also have bought into the feed mill (Agri-Way Partners), as well as the processing plant (West Liberty Foods).”

That’s why Iowa has seen the need to pass farms on to the next generation as key to meeting the increased processing and consumer demands, Irwin said.

“Iowa has a long tradition of families raising turkeys,” she said.

“New producers have been able to enter turkey production because of the contracts offered by the processors. Many retiring farmers are assisting young producers so they can take over their farms.”

Muscatine County, Iowa turkey grower Steve Cline, who’s been farming for nearly 20 years, raising around 125,000 tom turkeys every year, said Graber and his wife are among the finest examples of young growers in the state who are continuing their families’ legacies.

Because of the importance of furthering Iowa’s strong heritage of turkey growing, Cline said he and his family help the younger farmers as much as possible.

“They call me a lot with questions, come up to our farm and look things over for ideas,” said Cline, who’s one of Graber’s friends and partners in several LLCs. “And I’m an open book for them; they can look at any of our records if they want.

“They are our future, and we need to help them anyway we can.” This farm news was published in the Nov. 22, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.