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Paynesville Press - Jan. 29, 2003

Oral History by Lloyd Peterson

Transcribed by Michael Jacobson

Lloyd Peterson was born in 1919 near Canby in Yellow Medicine County. He attended country schools and graduated from Madison High School in 1937. He started at the University of Minnesota's agriculture school in the fall of 1937. He graduated in 1942 with a bachelor of science in agriculture education. He taught vocational agriculture in Harmony, Minn., for six months before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he became a Second Lieutenant. During World War II, he served on the West Coast and in Hawaii. He was discharged in 1946.

From 1946 to mid-year 1948, he worked for Cargill in Minneapolis. In 1948, with two classmates/fraternity brothers from the University of Minnesota, he started a feed and seed business in Paynesville, buying the mill formerly owned and operated by Russell Portinga.

In that same year, through Lloyd's contacts at Cargill, they purchased 800 eight-week-old turkeys that had been fed experimental rations at Cargill's research farm in Savage, Minn. In partnership with Don Sonstegard, a Paynesville resident and former classmate of theirs at the university, they raised these turkeys for 12 weeks (until they were 20 weeks old) near the northeast edge of Paynesville.

Due to a shortage of turkey in 1948, the enterprise was "very profitable," earning $3 profit per bird.

Raising turkeys was a perfect complement to their feed and seed business, as they were able to grind and mix their own feed. In 1949, Peterson and his partners raised 3,000 turkeys. In 1950, they raised 9,000 turkeys. In 1951, they purchased the Bill Diekman farm on the west end of town (near the airport) and converted the dairy barn to a brooding/growing facility.

In 1951, they raised 20,000 birds. "Our business grew as the years went by, and we bought additional farms."

By the early 1970s, they raised two million turkeys per year, totaling 35 million pounds of live turkey. At the peak, they had 15 farms in the Paynesville area, six near Fergus Falls, and one by Wadena.

Peterson and his partners sold their turkey operation in 1978. The farms were subsequently sold to Jennie-O Foods of Willmar in 1983 and to Hormel in 1986. In 1990, the farms were part of Earl B. Olson Farms (EBO Farms), a subdivision of Hormel.

His two major partners were Oscar Thorbeck and Wayne Jimmerson. Junior partners included Louis Hedlund, Keith Langmo, and Bob Schaefer.

At Cargill, Peterson supervised the feed production at country elevators. During his two years with Cargill, he worked with turkey growers in western Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and eastern South Dakota. He never taught in schools again. "I think the opportunities in the business world were better as far as my judgment was concerned than to continue to teach agriculture in high schools." Their turkey operation was production only. They neither hatched turkeys nor processed them. They bought young turkeys (poults) from hatcheries throughout the state and sold the market-weight birds to processing plants throughout the Midwest.

Peterson saw lots of improvements in the turkey industry during his 30 years in the partnership. In the 1940s, they had only bronz turkeys, turkeys with dark feathers. Through breeding, in the 1950s, the dark feathers were eliminated, as white birds were more acceptable to consumers.

Through breeding and better feeding, they were able to add more meat to each bird, raising the ratio of meat-to-bone. In his early years in the industry, it would take 25 weeks to produce a 25-pound tom (male turkey) and 20 or 21 weeks to produce a 13-pound hen. In 1990, he said it would take 19 weeks to produce a 26- to 30-pound tom and 12 or 13 weeks to raise a 13-pound hen.

Peterson maintained an office at the feed mill in Paynesville. Each turkey farm had a manager, and supervisors, reporting directly to Peterson, would be responsible for three to six farms. Peterson would visit each farm in the Paynesville area once a week and would make trips to Fergus Falls every week or every other week.

At its peak, the business had 75 to 80 full- and part-time employees. Improvements were made in the automation of equipment: from hand equipment and hand feeding to machines and automated systems; from hand ventilation in barns (opening windows) to automatic fans and thermostats, providing better climate control. And improvements were made against disease: through better genetics (breeding) and better medicines. Management practices improved immensely over his 30 years in the industry.

A typical farm (one capable of producing 100,000 birds per year) would raise three batches of turkeys per year. The first group would start in the brooding barn in February. By May, these birds would be ready for the range, and the brooding barn could be cleaned, disinfected, and a new batch brought in.

The first batch would be ready for market in the summer, and the second batch would be ready for the range by July, when the third batch could be brought to the brooding barn after it was cleaned again. The third batch would be smaller, so when the weather got bad in the fall these birds could be brought inside the barns again and finished growing inside. The last batch would go to market in November or December.

By this method, the barns would be utilized throughout the year, except for January.

By the time of the interview, the trend in the turkey industry was to total confinement in the growing of turkeys.

In the 1950s, Peterson became involved with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. He served on the board of directors and was president in 1956. In the 1960s, he served on the board of directors of the National Turkey Federation, being president in 1970.

As president of the national turkey organization, Peterson had the opportunity to present a turkey to President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970. The president of the NTF traditionally had the honor to present the president with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Two toms had been selected from the Peterson farms to present to the president. These birds were given special treatment and were older so they were prettier, shinier, and bigger.

Peterson, his wife Ardyce, and their 12-year-old son Steve flew to Washington, D.C., bringing the turkeys in dog cages. They rented a station wagon and kept the turkeys in the back overnight. People who saw the birds remarked about the "big chickens." To get in the White House, they had to show identification, and Steve used his Boy Scout card.

Due to security during the Vietnam War, only Lloyd actually met President Nixon. Ardyce and Steve got a tour of the White House while Lloyd presented Nixon with the turkeys in the Rose Garden. Lloyd had to wait for 15 minutes while Nixon conferred with the president of South Vietnam. He spent 10 to 15 minutes with the president, who was affable and inquisitive. California, Nixon's home state, is also a leading turkey producer. Also present were the secretary of the MTGA, the executive secretary of the NTF, the Secretary of Agriculture, and Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, who ran for president in 1980.

Around 25 or 30 photographers and reporters were allowed to watch the presentation, and the most popular photograph occurred when the turkey, which Peterson was holding to insure good behavior, flapped its wings in a "relaxing gesture." Peterson received 25 or 30 news clippings from around the country of his turkey with its wings in President Nixon's face.

Peterson noted that consumer acceptance of turkey and marketing improvements had helped the turkey industry. In 1948, he estimated that the per capita consumption of turkey was about five pounds. By 1978, it was nine pounds. By 1990, it was 17 pounds. One factor was that turkey meat is lower in cholesterol than red meat, he said.

In marketing, Peterson said that in 1948 the market for turkeys was virtually exclusively for whole birds. Peak times for the industry back then were holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Now, through further processing, deboned turkey meat could be found in a hundred products, including sausage and wieners, and turkeys could be purchased in parts, rather than as whole birds. With more choices in size when purchasing, he estimated that 75 percent of consumption now occurred during non-holiday times.

In his retirement, Peterson operated a 1,000-acre farm in the Paynesville area, served the University of Minnesota as a member of the Board of Regents (1975-1981), served on the Institute of Agriculture's advisory committee (1981-1988), and on the board for the U of M Foundation. He also served on the boards for Camp Courage and Tentmakers.

As the youngest of eight children born on a farm to Swedish immigrants, Peterson and his wife did lots of travelling, through his involvement in turkey organizations and later in retirement. Peterson had five first cousins in Sweden, who they visited regularly. He and Ardyce also traveled to Africa, South America, Australia, the Soviet Union in 1977 (where they saw collective agriculture), and to China in 1978 (right after the country opened its borders to the west).

For more about the oral history project, read the Press article, Volunteers transcribing oral history for museum.

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