The Yamhill County Turkey Story
by Barbara Doyle, 2004
In 1850, Fendel or John Sutherlin, who settled in Douglas County, brought a crate of rather rangy turkeys from Indiana – in a covered wagon. The offspring of Sutherlin’s flock was shared with other settlers. The turkey was on its way to becoming a domestic farm bird in Oregon. By 1930 Oregon had become the 6th largest US turkey producing state.
Commercial turkey operations took-off in Yamhill County in the early 1930s. Harvey and Wilbur Stoller arrived in 1932, coming from the family farm in Washington County where they raised turkeys. They settled in the Lafayette area. In Amity, Don Walker joined his father, Robert, in setting up their first turkey venture in 1934. Jim and Annie Munro, and Annie’s brother, Alex Robb, got into this business later in the 1930s in the Yamhill-Carlton area. Menefees settled near Yamhill in about 1937, and concentrated on growing closed foundation flocks (breeder flocks) of broad breasted bronze turkeys on their 1300 acre turkey ranch. This bird was the ideal turkey with lots of meat on the broad breast.
Raising a flock was pretty straightforward. Get day-old poults (turkey chicks), keep them in a warm, safe brooder house for about 6-8 weeks and provide feed and water. After that, the turkeys were moved to the open range in late March or April to mature during the next six months. Then they were killed on the farm and shipped to markets or cold storage facilities, depending upon when the killing, delicately called processing, took place. Gradually, during the 1930s, on-site processing was abandoned and the live turkeys were taken to a killing plant. This general sequence of events continued into the late 1960s.
Selling turkeys profitably was almost more of a challenge than raising them. In 1927 the Yamhill County Extension Office handled negotiations with commercial turkey buyers in Portland – to get a better price for the local growers. They joined the Turkey Growers Association in 1930 for help with marketing. But by 1932 they wanted out because they were able to market their own birds to better advantage at the Yamhill Street Open Market in Portland.
Verl Sauter’s parents raised about 500 turkeys a year, selling some at the Yamhill Street Market. Unfortunately, the Yamhill Market closed in 1934. The growers rejoined the Turkey Growers Association.
Lots of good productive changes took place during the 1930s. Continuous feeding was introduced, as was rearing the birds in semi-confinement to encourage mating and installing lights to induce earlier egg laying. Hatcheries capable of incubating thousands of eggs came into existence. Commercial killing plants with artificially cooled rooms opened to serve the larger growers. Sanitary conditions improved leading to fewer losses due to disease. The Douglas County Cooperative Turkey Growers organization expanded beyond its borders and became the Oregon Turkey Growers in 1932. Still a co-op. The Pacific Coast Turkey Exhibit started in McMinnville in 1938 as a one-day turkey exhibit – with prizes. Indoors in December. Oregon was the 4th largest US producer by the end of the 1930s.
Harold Davis got involved because of turkey feed. Beginning in 1941 at Buchanan Cellars Grain Company, he improved feed for high-producing turkey breeders and for fast weight gaining market birds. Harold and Dan Smith went into partnership in 1948 taking over Max Lyons turkey operation producing broad breasted bronzes and purchasing the Menefee site. Later they developed a strain of white turkeys. Both men were extensively involved in the turkey organizations and attended national turkey conventions.
The Walkers expanded. By 1942 they were processing (killing) birds on their farm. Later they established another plant in Silverton. Walkers set up a hatchery near Broadmead with brothers-in-law, Shorty Camp and Al Wilson, running the operation. That lasted seventeen years as they raised their own breeders to improve the broad breasted bronze turkey. Walkers were the only Yamhill County growers involved in all facets of the industry – hatching, breeding, growing and processing
The local growers put together a terrific marketing idea in November 1949. They sent a turkey to the governors of all 48 states. They sent one to President Harry Truman at the White House. Gene Malecki, manager of the Pacific Coast Turkey Exhibit, personally delivered Richard Reyne’s live champion turkey, to President Ismet Inonu of Turkey in Istanbul. The Voice of America covered this for worldwide broadcast.
To maintain interest in the local event (the PCTE), a turkey dog contest was introduced in 1949. Dogs got orders from their owners on how to drive a group of turkeys thru a specified routine within an enclosed pen. The winning score was based upon both the human’s and dog’s performance. It was broadcast on the national radio network. This event was eventually canceled due to complaints about cruelty to animals.
In the early 1950s with turkeys grown in every Oregon county, the state was in the top ten turkey producing states. Yamhill County had become the leader in Oregon because there was a rapid shift of the turkey business from central and southern Willamette Valley farms to market areas closer to Portland. Douglas County growers had discovered that their timber had more value than their turkeys. Harold Davis convinced Richard and Patsey Miller to switch from raising chickens to raising turkeys.
Wilbur and Harvey Stoller opened their own killing plant. Jim Munro died and his widow, Annie, worked with her brother until sometime in the ‘70s. Charles Evers jumped in with 5,000 turkeys in 1954 or ‘55. Both Stollers and Evers were written up in national industry publications about their farsightedness in growing, handling and processing turkeys.
Several significant changes occurred during the 1950s. Federal law required turkeys be eviscerated. Turkey eggs for hatcheries brought a better profit than turkeys for meat. Harold Davis and Dan Smith began sending their eggs to far away places using the “Flying Tiger” Cargo service from Portland Airport. There was an industry-wide consensus to market turkeys as year round food. Yamhill County’s turkey celebration promoted that idea by introducing turkey burgers, even though they only became a commercial product later. Rustlers – turkey rustlers – appeared on the range.
Turkey Rama began in 1961 as a joint venture with the Chamber of Commerce. It grew from the Pacific Coast Turkey Exhibit show and competition. Both events were designed to spur turkey consumption. What started as a banquet for the growers ended as a barbeque for the public. As the years passed, it became more of a community festival. Profits benefit local human services organizations.
Turkeys had become more than a million dollar industry for Yamhill County before the late 1960s, but small scale growers were starting to drop out. Richard and Patsey Miller did so in 1964 because he secured a job with a steady income thereby avoiding the financial ups-and-downs associated with turkey growing. Patsey’s family, the Appersons, continued on.
Artificial insemination was introduced as a way to lessen the wear and tear on hens resulting from natural reproduction. Poults were sexed and sorted at the hatchery. Hens and toms were never allowed to commingle. Because hens would be repeatedly artificially inseminated in late winter and early spring, overall turkey production increased. This led to ever greater marketing activities and the introduction of bunch meats – ground turkey, turkey sausage, sliced turkey breasts – and turkey parts.
Feed costs were always a concern. They represented about 2/3 of all costs associated with raising turkeys. Good feed, corn and soybeans that had a high conversion rate to meat, was a Midwestern product. The resulting high transportation costs meant that local turkey growers were paying $10 or more per ton beyond what growers in other regions were paying. This translated to a loss of about thirty cents per bird – a significant loss when profit margins were never great.
Turkeys moved off the range in the late 1960s. Don Walker built what was then state-of the-art grow-out sheds. Twenty-one of them in 1969. These buildings, almost 8,000 square feet, gave growers more control over the turkeys, eliminated some natural hazards and led to better feed conversion rates. Turkey maturity was reached about four weeks sooner than range finished birds – dramatically reducing feed costs.
The birds were changing. Bronze turkeys left dark spots in the flesh where the feathers were attached. These dark spots detracted from the visual appeal. To eliminate these spots small white turkeys whose feathers didn’t leave dark spots were being crossed with the broad breasted bronzes. Soon the broad breasted white turkey had become the industry standard. Larry Stoller, an Amity area turkey grower, thinks that the local industry slowly began losing efficiency in the late 1970s.
He defined efficiency as the cost of growing the birds – feed, freight and processing costs plus money spent on land and equipment. One attempt to improve the federally mandated upgrading of the chilling process actually decreased the plant’s efficiency thereby resulting in another small loss per bird for the growers. Other turkey growing areas – California, the Midwest and the Southeast – had advantages that Oregon didn’t have: close proximity to large population centers, close proximity to feed sources, lower wages and/or no unions.
These problems slowly grew in significance during the 1980s. Verl Sauter, who was ‘the banker’ for many of the county’s growers from 1958-86, knew that the market price for turkeys was a specified national number. He knew that the local growers were raising ever larger flocks while the profit margin on turkeys was getting thinner. Not a good picture financially. Smaller growers—with less investment in equipment, etc.—were slowly driven out by these small setbacks. The larger operations – with 100,000 or more birds per year – were better able to withstand those loses, expecting the market would recover. It always had.
By the mid-1980s turkey management had changed significantly. Huge environmentally controlled buildings with automated ventilation and electronic controls were beginning to be built. Four of these buildings erected on ten acre sites became the industry standard. Typically there was a young flock in the brooder house – one of the smaller buildings with 17,000 square feet – and an older flock in the three grow-out buildings.
Day old poults were sorted by sex at the hatchery, delivered to the brooder house where hens and toms were kept separated. After about five weeks the hens were moved to the other 17,000 square foot building. Toms took over that entire brooder house for about two to three more weeks before being placed in the two larger buildings (20,000 square feet each). The turrkeys stayed in these buildings until they were shipped to the only remaining killing plant in Oregon. Once the brooder house was vacated and thoroughly cleaned, it was ready for the next batch of poults (25,000) which came on a pretty regular basis about five times a year. This was year-round growing. Initially it seemed like the perfect way to raise turkeys by eliminating so many of the earlier problems and it provided a year round income.
Ultimately it was one of the major reasons the industry ended in Oregon. That conclusion is based on hindsight. The growers didn’t see it coming. In fact, Anthony Bernards, a Dayton farmer, was aware of the nice profits that turkey growers reaped in 1984. He and his brother raised 2-3 flocks in 1985 making a three dollar profit per turkey. That was reason enough to sign up to have those four big environmentally controlled buildings erected on his farm during the winter of 1985-6. The 1986 production brought good profits. Then “the bottom fell out in 1987; no one made a profit.” There was too much supply with demand decreasing. The Bernards brothers, average size growers raising 100,000 – 125,000 turkeys annually, felt obliged to stay in the industry because of the lease agreement on the new buildings.
Year-round production was not the only reason for the collapse of the industry. The Oregon Turkey Growers Co-operative, their own organization, was partly to blame. The members. The management. The Board. Members tended to look out for their own needs rather than the group needs. The management did not get close to maximizing efficiency. The Board lacked the wisdom to start at the marketing end of the industry, thereby telling members how many turkeys to grow. These problems can be summed up as ‘poor management’.
Anthony Bernards, the last president of the Board of Directors, also faults Norbest, the marketing agent for Oregon Turkey Growers. The Norbest label had been good for a number of years. Unfortunately, the company was unable to provide what the Oregon Turkey Growers needed – marketing savvy. Discontent on the local grower’s part led to a search for a replacement. Because the contract with Norbest stated some rather severe penalties for withdrawing, Oregon Turkey Growers never switched.
The economic picture was worsening. According to Yamhill County Extension records 1,100,000 turkeys were sold by Yamhill County growers in 1986 for $10,257,000. That was good money for the growers. Twice as many turkeys were marketed from Yamhill County in 1991. To make the same profit as they had five years earlier, the value of the sales should have been $20,514,000. Instead the turkeys brought in $13,004,000 – a decrease in profits of about seven and a half million dollars. Growers began losing interest as their profits began a steady decline in 1987 and more dropped out of the industry. When Larry and Susan Stoller began, in the mid 1970s, they aimed for $1 gross profit per bird. At the very end he would have been happy with 50 cents per bird.
A nearly fatal blow was the recall of ‘spoiled turkeys’ in 1991. A distributor supposedly had committed to buying turkeys from Norbest at a price which ultimately exceeded the nationally set market price. He claimed there were ‘spoiled turkeys’ – anywhere from 3 to 300 – which could be traced back to Oregon Turkey Growers. The story goes that some turkeys had been left outside, overnight, on a loading dock. Why that happened was never clearly established. 70,000 fresh turkeys were recalled from seven states just days before Thanksgiving. The distributor refused to pay Norbest who sought payment from the growers who then turned to their insurance companies. A long legal battle resulted in a court decision unfavorable to the growers. “The turkeys were spoiled. The growers have to cover the cost.” – $900,000.
Norbest did not support the Oregon growers who provided only about 5% of Norbest’s turkeys. Growers in Utah (Norbest’s home state) and Nebraska Turkey Growers were able to meet Norbest’s needs. There was overproduction of turkeys and a large inventory of frozen turkeys. Oregon growers were superfluous – an unstated but rather obvious reason why Norbest didn’t stand behind their growers in the conflict with the distributor.
Payment of that $900,000 debt, the oversupply of turkeys and financial losses since 1987 led several growers to quit in 1992 after their younger flock had gone to the killing plant. One grower provided the final blow. John Stoller said, “I’ll be the biggest grower in Oregon and if anyone gets in my way, I’ll walk right over them.” John expanded his operation so much that he was producing more than 50% of the birds grown in the state – raising at least 500,000 turkeys per year. Loans enabled him to build 10 of those expensive environmentally controlled buildings.
He had become the biggest grower. He also had financial difficulties going back several years and he owed a lot of money. Knowing this and the sorry financial situation of the turkey business in Oregon, the lenders called in their loans which forced him into bankruptcy. All of his assets, including his turkeys, were tied up in the bankruptcy case. They were not available to be processed at the co-op plant in West Salem. The remaining growers, who collectively accounted for less than 50% of the total number of turkeys, could not cover the full cost of operating the killing plant.
Unable to absorb a second major financial hit within two years, the co-op had to close. According to Gerald Evers, the local turkey growers just weren’t able to run a cost effective business. The last turkeys were processed at the plant in April 1993. The Co-op filed for bankruptcy in July 1993. The plant was sold in early 1994.
Many growers lost quite a bit of money. Charles Evers, who raised about 350,000-400,000 turkeys annually, said, “It was lots of hard work. I made lots of money and I lost lots of money on turkeys. All told I came out ahead.” Anthony Bernards still owed money on the loan associated with erecting the environmentally controlled buildings. But there was no income from those buildings. Times were tough.
Some of the ex-turkey growers expanded their other agricultural activities – mostly growing grains and grasses. Others rented out their huge turkey buildings for storage of hay, farm equipment, whatever. A few like Gerald Evers (Charles’s son) and Anthony Bernards switched to growing chickens. When you eat a ‘grown in Oregon’ Foster Farm chicken it might very well come from one of these two farms.
Some of the turkey facilities and range land now support a newer agricultural activity – vineyards and wineries. Walker’s Newberg farm is now part of Rex Hill’s extensive vineyards. Wilbur Stoller’s land, where John Stoller raised his turkeys, has one section of the vineyard called Stoller Ridge. In 1970 David Lett, owner of Eyrie Vineyards, acquired the McDaniel killing plant in McMinnville. The building’s features that made it good for processing turkeys also make it good for converting grapes into wine.