By: Dan Lemke
When Land O’Lakes announced in 1988 that it would be closing its turkey processing plant in Thief River Falls, Minn. at the end of the year, growers who supplied birds to the plant were left with few viable options to market their birds. Rather than accept defeat, 19 turkey growers from northwestern Minnesota and northeastern North Dakota banded together, formed a cooperative and purchased a facility.
More than 30 years later, the spirit that drove the creation of Northern Pride, Inc., is still on full display as the co-op responds to changing markets and shifting consumer demands.
Minnesota is the nation’s top turkey producing state, raising between 40-42 million birds per year, according to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. Turkey production has been a part of northwestern Minnesota’s agricultural economy for decades.
“Currently, we have 18 owners, of which most are now second, third and even fourth generation growers,” says Troy Stauffenecker, Northern Pride general manager. “We also have six non-owners who supply their live turkeys to us.”
Stauffenecker says Northern Pride processes 2.5 million turkeys each season from mid-April to the end of November, handling about 20,000 birds per day.
“We focus on whole birds for the Thanksgiving market, but have started producing items for year-round consumption,” Stauffenecker says. “We are a co-packer for most major retailers, meaning we pack the turkeys in the retailer’s label versus our own Northern Pride label. We also export to Mexico and a few other countries across the globe.”
Northern Pride produces whole birds, bone-in breasts, split breasts, half turkeys and tray pack parts sold into retail markets, as well as various turkey products sold to others for additional processing.
Adapting to Change
As with most areas of agriculture, turkey production has changed over the years. Stauffenecker says that in 1989, the majority of growers supplying turkeys for Northern Pride raised their birds free range. Today, nearly 100 percent of the birds are raised in environmentally controlled barns.
“We have seen genetics improve, so we have gone from raising mainly toms to hens,” Stauffenecker explains. “We are now able to get our hens as big as the toms were 30 years ago.”
Changes have not only occurred in genetics and husbandry, Northern Pride also adapted how it markets the birds. Stauffenecker says the cooperative entered the organic and raised-without-antibiotics markets as those sectors expanded in the past decade.
Changes in demographics and other social factors impelled the cooperative to expand its product offerings.
“There has been a change in markets toward buying smaller portion items with smaller family gatherings due to COVID,” Stauffenecker says. “Seeing this need, we started producing split breasts, half turkeys and most recently, tray pack parts to meet the need for smaller portions. This was in response to requests from our customers to supply items other than whole birds as they had needs that were not being met.”
For more than a decade, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) has operated the Rural Cooperative Development Center, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support and assist cooperatives in their ability to grow. AURI’s Center, along with the Northwest Regional Development Commission and the City of Thief River Falls, began working with the Northern Pride cooperative in 2016, helping them navigate the process of accessing Value-Added Producer Grants offered through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). While initial efforts to receive the awards were unsuccessful, subsequent attempts yielded grants which have helped Northern Pride expand its capabilities.
“In 2018, we assisted them with capitalization efforts for business expansion,” says AURI Project Manager Becky Philipp. “This allowed them to leverage their funds to upgrade their bagging and packaging equipment to increase efficiencies and processing to tap into another market opportunity.”
In 2021, AURI’s Center again worked with Northern Pride through the Rural Cooperative Development program on a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant.
“We helped them secure a federal Value-Added Producer grant, which needed a feasibility study,” explains AURI Business Development Director Harold Stanislawski. “In order to apply for that grant, AURI’s Center provided funding and business development assistance to help them get through the process of that comprehensive program so that they could be eligible, and they were successful.”
“AURI’s Center has assisted us with business development efforts to secure several grants that we have been eligible for,” Stauffenecker says. “These funds have helped us purchase new or upgrade processing equipment that has allowed us to be more efficient as well as expand our processing capabilities. AURI’s Center provided their expertise and resources to assist with business development steps in the application process, which we were awarded in all of our applications.”
“We recently purchased an adjacent property to our original facility and renovated that space into a further processing facility that allowed us to expand into other markets and provide our customers with a full line of turkey products, which has been very exciting for us.”
Philipp says working with Northern Pride to help them with capitalization efforts to grow its operation is an example of how the Rural Cooperative Development program is supposed to work.
“It’s nice to see AURI being good stewards of the Rural Cooperative Development funding that we receive because it’s funding that’s doing what it’s intended to do,” Philipp says. “It’s helping us strengthen rural co-ops and the communities they’re in.”
The Northern Pride facility may be physically located in Thief River Falls but receives turkeys from growers scattered across the region. Success of the cooperative means the economic ripples spread to a much broader area.
“It’s good to see that community and all the growers in northwest Minnesota that serve the Northern Pride plant benefit,” Stanislawski says. “That benefit even extends to my area here in Otter Tail County because we have turkey growers that belong to that Thief River Falls business and market their birds there. It’s been extremely gratifying for AURI’s Center to work with Northern Pride because it’s boots on the ground type impacts. They got the project up and running. There’s a brand-new, renovated facility up there. It’s fantastic.”
“It’s great to see businesses like Northern Pride growing in the community and creating more jobs,” Philipp says. “It’s definitely a win-win.”
About the Rural Cooperative Development Center
Since 2011, AURI’s Rural Cooperative Development Center has helped agriculture cooperatives remain vital and grow. AURI’s Center also works with newly created cooperatives and organizations operating in tandem to launch new businesses and plan for long-term viability.
The Center uses cooperative development as a strategy to maintain or improve economic conditions of eligible rural areas while continuing to grow a collaborative, integrated approach of delivering cooperative development services, utilizing the most appropriate expertise available.
The Center helps with a variety of services, including product assessment, feasibility assessment, market analysis, project management and more.
AURI’s Rural Cooperative Development Center services and assistance are available to co-op members, groups that want to form a cooperative, group-owned businesses and mutually owned rural businesses.
The Center is supported by funds from the Minnesota state legislature and the USDA’s Rural Development agency.
Learn more about the AURI Rural Cooperative Development Center here or call 218.281.7600.