Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom annual virtual tour brings thousands of students inside a turkey farm
Hunter Kvistad's farm in Yellow Medicine County is the site of a virtual tour on Nov. 22, 2022 –- two days before Thanksgiving -– as part of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom. Keri Sidle of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom said the organization has been visiting a turkey farm just before Thanksgiving every year since 2016. Minnesota is the nation's leading turkey producer and the turkey farm is the most popular of the virtual tours. Sidle expects more than 100 elementary classrooms from 12 to 15 states will participate.
COTTONWOOD, Minn. — As a 22-year-old recent college graduate asking for millions of dollars to build some new turkey barns, Hunter Kvistad jokes that he needed to find a banker with a good sense of humor.
“Which I did,” Kvistad said. “I found a good banker with a good sense of humor and we got her done.”
What they got done was two brand new turkey barns — a brooder and a finisher — in Yellow Medicine County in southwest Minnesota. Each barn holds a 40,000 bird flock. Kvistad said it was an investment of about $3 million.
Kvistad graduated from Iowa State University in 2020 and got the project rolling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first birds went into the barns in September 2021.
This year, Kvistad can share his own sense of humor while hosting a virtual tour of his operation at 10 a.m. Nov. 22 — two days before Thanksgiving — as part of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom.
Virtual field trips are one of several ways Minnesota Ag in the Classroom promotes farming, with other recent tours including an apple orchard and a cattle ranch.
Another tour planned before Christmas is a visit to the Crystal Collection Reindeer farm at Lake Crystal near Mankato in southern Minnesota.
Keri Sidle of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom said the organization has been visiting a turkey farm just before Thanksgiving every year since 2016. Minnesota is the nation's leading turkey producer and the turkey farm is the most popular of the virtual tours. Sidle expects more than 100 elementary classrooms from 12 to 15 states will participate.
The interactive tours are done over Zoom, allowing students and teachers to submit questions live.
“We try to shout out to the school or to the students and we heard they think that's pretty cool when their name or their teacher's name gets mentioned in the live broadcast,” Sidle said.
The Zoom tour requires preregistration but the tour also is streamed on YouTube, where anyone can watch.
In-person visits to turkey and other poultry farms are rare these days as the industry struggles with an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza.
The avian flu has hit 105 Minnesota farms in 2022, affecting more than 3.8 million birds, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The outbreaks started in the spring and the flu, which can be spread by migrating waterfowl, has seen a resurgence in the fall.
Nationally , more than 50 million birds have been affected on poultry farms, with confirmed cases in 618 flocks.
Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom never actually set foot on the turkey farm. The organization sends the video and audio equipment to the farm, where Kvistad and a local assistant can set it up and test it out before going live with Sue Knott from Agriculture in the Classroom acting as host from their home base in the Twin Cities.
Kvistad and the turkey farm run by his parents, Paul and Jamie Kvistad, have so far been able to keep the bird flu out of their barns.
Hunter Kvistad credits being cautious about biosecurity and “a lot of disinfectant,” even using a sprayer around the outside of the buildings and on the township road leading to his farm.
Paul Kvistad’s turkey farm was the site of the first virtual turkey farm tour back in 2016. Sidle said the technology has come a long way but a key is finding a turkey barn where a good internet connection is available.
That's something Hunter’s new modern barns should be able to provide.
“Part of why we like to do it live is it's far more fun and exciting to watch something live, even if there's a few hiccups, than it is to watch a video,” Sidle said. But the Zoom technology also allows Sidle to bring up photos or video of things that may not be a available live, such as a shipment of new poults arriving at the farm.
Hunter Kvistad’s farm is not far from that of his parents, and he and his dad farm about 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans.
Kvistad is able to handle the day-to-day chores of the turkey farm himself. He said he gets help from his parents on a few days of the year, such as when birds might be moving from one barn to another.
Modern technology helps make it possible for him to run things mostly on his own. He is able to monitor and control much of his operation from his smartphone. That also allows him to live in the town of Cottonwood, about 10 miles away from his barns, between Wood Lake and Echo.
He raises six flocks of hens a year, each flock takes about 12 weeks to get to the market weight of 13 to 15 pounds.
They are processed at the Jennie-O facility in Melrose, Minnesota. Kvistad’s birds are sold as whole turkeys, like the approximately 46 million turkeys that Americans will serve on Thanksgiving. He said that means handling the turkeys with care to avoid any bumps and bruises on the birds.
“Everyone wants it to look perfect,” Kvistad said of the Thanksgiving turkey.
His fledgling farm is capable of producing about 3 million pounds of turkey each year.
“I like the idea that I feed a lot of people,” Kvistad said.
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He realizes people will be paying more for their Thanksgiving turkeys this year, which he attributes to the high price of corn that is used to feed livestock.
“I’m spending a fortune feeding them,” Kvistad said.
He said each flock of 40,000 birds requires about 1 million pounds of feed — about 2 pounds of feed for 1 one pound of turkey meat.
Even so, one reason Kvistad was able to convince a banker to provide the startup loan is that turkeys are a steady market and cash-flow well.
For the Kvistad Thanksgiving, the family will be traveling to his grandmother’s home near Frazee in northwest Minnesota. (Frazee also happens to be the home of the World’s Largest Turkey.)
He said there will be about 25 people gathered.
Asked what his favorite Thanksgiving side dish is, Kvistad replied: "Does pumpkin pie count?"