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Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Tom turkeys get a pass on Thanksgiving

Locally-based agribusiness talks about operations

By Nancy Allen

Two toms fluff out their feathers and strut. The turkeys are being raised by Car. . .

ST. HENRY - As most Americans prepare to gobble up some turkey on Thursday, officials from locally-based Cooper Farms have a message - it does not raise Thanksgiving turkeys.
"So many people ask us if this is our busiest time of year," said company spokeswoman Cassie Jo Arend during a recent media day. "A lot of people don't understand what we do and this gives us an opportunity to explain ... this time of year is when people are most curious."
The media event was held at the Cary and Jackie Goettemoeller farm near St. Henry, one of 177 mostly Mercer County-based contract turkey growers for Cooper Farms, the 12th largest turkey producer in the United States. The farm has four barns that each house 6,000 turkeys.
The young, 22-pound tom turkeys in one barn made quiet chirping sounds and scattered nervously when some human visitors arrived.
"In about two weeks that will change (to a loud gobble)," Gary Goettemoeller said. "They'll start strutting and they will come up to you and try to make you leave."
Their mostly pink faces also will turn blue and a fleshy nob atop their heads called a snood will grow long and dangly, he said. The waddle under their necks also will turn red, signaling the birds are becoming adults.
Many local residents likely have eaten Cooper products without knowing it, said Gary Cooper, who owns the company with siblings Jim and Dianne. Most of the company's turkey is made into deli meats.
"Ninety five percent of what we do is private label so you don't see the Cooper name," Gary Cooper said. "We do private label for Kroger and Meijer and we do all Bob Evans (Restaurants)."
Kretschmar brand deli turkey, chicken and ham from livestock raised by Cooper growers is available at local groceries, he said. The company also produces chicken, pork, table eggs and feed.
Cooper said the company raises only tom (male) turkeys to a weight of about 45 pounds before the birds are made into a variety of cooked deli meats, burgers, bacon, sausage and other products.
Most of the turkeys companies raise for Thanksgiving are hens, which weigh 12 to 18 pounds.
"At 45 pounds live, there's no roasting pen or oven of that size," Cooper said to explain why toms are not used.
Cooper Farms makes boneless turkey rolls often given as Thanksgiving gifts to employees, some suppliers and vendors. The product is not distributed at groceries except for Gels IGA and Niekamp's Farm and Flea Market, both in St. Henry.
The turkey rolls are served at the free annual Giving Thanks events on Thanksgiving Day in Celina and Montezuma and other similar events, she said.
"It's the product that seems most fitting," Arend said of the turkey rolls. "We donate 2,500 pounds to the Dayton Feast of Giving to serve to the needy and that's just one of many similar donations we do; it's probably the largest we do."
U.S. consumers didn't always eat as much turkey as they do today, Cooper noted, attributing the increase to people wanting to eat healthier.
"When my parents got into the business, all the birds were fresh or frozen because back then so fewer people consumed turkey," Cooper said.
Today, U.S. consumers eat 17 pounds of turkey per person annually. The No. 1 consumer country for turkey is Israel with 30 pounds per person per year, he noted.
The turkey burger is the company's fastest growing product. Sales of turkey burgers and lunch meat jump each year around Memorial Day and Labor Day due to holiday cookouts, Arend added.

Cooper Farms facts:
• Hatch 15 million turkeys a year
• Raise, process 210 million live pounds a year
• Process 4.6 million turkeys a year (18,300 birds daily) averaging 45 pounds each
• Produce 14 million pounds of turkey burgers for various companies
• 177 contract grower farms with the vast majority (95 percent) in Mercer County
• Raise and sell more than 125 million live pounds of hogs a year
• 81 contract grower farms
• Produce 30 million dozen table eggs a year
• 22 contract grower farms
• Purchase more than 10 million bushels of corn a year
• Purchase 100,000 tons of soybean meal a year
• Produce more than 559,000 tons of feed a year
Locations, employees
Virgil and Virginia Cooper started the business in 1938 with a flock of about 500 turkeys. More than 1,500 employees now work at four locations, a processing plant in St. Henry (587), grain mill in Fort Recovery (176), cooked meats plant in Van Wert (433) and a hatchery in Oakwood (329).
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