Turkey debuts at Meijer deli

March 22, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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March marked the start of a new era for Michigan Turkey Producers in Wyoming, when its Golden Legacy brand of turkey breast meat found a place at deli counters in Meijer stores across Michigan.

Michigan Turkey Producers, a West Michigan farmers' cooperative with plants in Wyoming and Grand Rapids, marked its 10th anniversary in the fall. It now sells about 120 million pounds of turkey meat a year, which is consumed all over the United States, according to President/CEO Dan Lennon.

Lennon said several Michigan retailers already carry the Golden Legacy brand, including Hiller's Markets in southeast Michigan, Bush's, Whole Foods, Heffron Farms, Forest Hills Foods and the Gristmill. Gordon Foods Marketplace stores retail Michigan Turkey products, but under the Gordon Foods label.

Most of Michigan Turkey Producers’ volume has been with the food service industry or marketed under private labels. Lennon said business with Meijer stores is the first time the co-ops' branded products have been available in a major, mainstream retail chain with outlets all over Michigan.

"We are asking you to please go to your local Meijer service deli and ask for Golden Legacy oven roasted or honey smoked turkey breast, to say thanks to Meijer for supporting Michigan Turkey," said Lennon.

"No other turkey product in the deli case (at Meijer) comes from Michigan," said Lennon, adding that consumer dollars spent on any other brand "leave the state as opposed to staying here at home."

Sixteen turkey farmers, who own 43 turkey-raising locations in West Michigan, are members of the Michigan Turkey Producers co-op. They raise about 4.5 million tom turkeys each year and employ about 200 people.

"We are not a backyard operation," noted Lennon.

The birds are slaughtered and processed at the Michigan Turkey plant in Wyoming, and some of the meat is cooked at another Michigan Turkey plant on Hall Street in Grand Rapids, said Lennon. Together, both locations employ about 550 people — "all taxpayers," he said. Counting the farms, he said, the turkey industry in West Michigan employs more than 700.

The co-op's biggest customers are companies that buy turkey meat by the truckload and then cook it and brand it for retail sale or for sale to institutions. Lennon said Michigan Turkey Producers also does a lot of private-labeling for retailers in the eastern U.S.

"We tend to be stronger in food service. Gordon Foods is one of our biggest customers," said Lennon.

According to Sherrie Rosenblatt of the National Turkey Federation, Michigan isn't in the top 10 turkey-producing states. The top three are Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas. As far as the size of turkey businesses, the Michigan Turkey Producers co-op is listed as the 15th largest turkey business in the U.S. The largest is Butterball LLC, with headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. Butterball processed about 1.4 billion pounds of live turkeys last year, followed by Jenny-O Turkey Store and Cargill, which markets several brands including Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms. Michigan Turkey Producers processed 178 million live pounds last year.

Lennon was previously employed as a sales executive in the food service division at Sara Lee Corp., which purchased the Bil Mar Foods turkey business in Zeeland in 1987. In 1998, Sara Lee announced it would discontinue live turkey production in West Michigan, leaving the West Michigan turkey farmers with no place to take their birds. So they banded together and formed Michigan Turkey Producers. Lennon, a Grand Rapids native, was told by the former president of Bil Mar Foods that the new co-op was looking for a manager; Lennon was hired in 1999 to run it and find outlets for the turkey products.

The economic situation has impacted the turkey industry, too, although it has always been "an industry of cycles," according to Lennon.

All proteins right now are fairly inexpensive for the consumer, not just turkey meat, he said, because there are currently oversupplies of almost everything. The dairy industry "can't even sell a gallon of milk above cost right now," he noted.

He noted that one major factor is the increase in the costs of agricultural production. The price of corn, needed as an animal feed, "went through the roof" in 2008, said Lennon.

Chicken, turkey, pork and beef producers now are cutting back production until the prices for their products improve, but Lennon said it will take a while before the situation changes.

"It's like turning around a battleship. You've got a lot of momentum going," he said. Chicken producers can impact their supply the quickest, because the life cycle of a chicken is only seven weeks. Turkeys are about 20 weeks, and pork is longer yet. Beef life cycles are more than a year.

Lennon said the period from 1999 to about 2003 was "a good balance in supply and demand" in the turkey business. Then there was an oversupply and prices dropped "drastically" in 2003 and 2004. Then there was an under-supply that generated good prices for the producers from 2005 through 2007. In 2008, an oversupply became apparent.

Butterball and the other largest turkey producers are "way over-supplied," said Lennon.

"Now we're in the midst of a sizeable correction again," said Lennon, adding that late 2009 or 2010 will probably see good prices again for the turkey industry.

"Right now, if you buy a pound of breast meat from a processor, you're going to pay under cost. And that's how the cycles go," he said.

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