The Iowa State Fair boasts 57 different foods on a stick. Of those, number 32 is the original.
“We have nature’s stick,” says Gretta Irwin, Executive Director of the Iowa Turkey Federation. Behind her stands the red and white barn where fair-goers can taste Iowan turkey, such as a drumstick. “Those are almost two pounds of turkey meat.”
Iowa isn’t known for its turkey. At the fair, there’s only the cattle, horse, swine and sheep barns. Save the barn Gretta’s standing in front of, there isn’t one for turkey. Even so, Gretta says,
“Iowa’s turkey industry is very dynamic,” says Gretta, squinting in the sun on the first day of the fair. “We have about 140 turkey farmers in Iowa that raise close to 11 million turkeys – that’s the most turkeys we’ve ever had in the state of Iowa.”
Before Iowa turkeys end up in a Subway or Jimmy John’s sandwich, they go to either Hillshire Brands Company in Storm Lake or West Liberty Foods in West Liberty. That’s where it all ends, but where does it start?
“We buy poults a day old from a company out of Minnesota,” says Nick Hermanson, his voice competing with shouting children at the nearby Bill Riley stage. Nick raises turkeys with his wife Katie near Story City. “We bring them into a warm building called a breeder house and raise them there for about five weeks. Then, once they get a little bit bigger, we move those birds into a bigger building, and actually take the one building and then divide it out into about four. to give the birds a little more room, so they have a little more comfort as they get bigger. We raise them until they’re about 19 and a half weeks old, and then we take them down to West Liberty, Iowa, where they’re processed into sliced lunch meat.”
With skyrocketing commodity prices, corn and soybeans in particular, one would expect turkey farmers to be suffering the same as other ranchers. Not so, says Hermanson.
“We’re doing alright. We’re hanging in there. Our processing plant’s been having a very good year on sales. The current economics are that the price of feed is high, but the meat going out the door at the plant is selling good, so we are still making money.”
In late July, USDA economist Ricky Volpe predicted consumers would first feel the drought’s effects in poultry prices; because poultry goes to market quicker than other livestock, USDA estimates a three to four percent increase in poultry products at the grocery store by the end of the year.
You can get a taste of Iowa turkey at the Iowa Turkey Federation’s Turkey Grill – the red and white barn between the Bill Riley stage and the Varied Industries building.