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Published February 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

Flocking to N. Dakota

Leading geese producer expands north
On a former turkey farm – near a town that once was the self-declared “Turkey Capital of North Dakota” – 8,000 geese are honking.

By: Jon Knutson, The Forum

Tolna, N.D.

On a former turkey farm – near a town that once was the self-declared “Turkey Capital of North Dakota” – 8,000 geese are honking.

Besides bolstering the economy of this farm town of 230, the geese are aiding researchers in the fight against West Nile virus.

The Schiltz family – which operates Schiltz Goose Farms, North America’s largest geese producer, and Schiltz Foods Inc., the continent’s largest geese processor, both in Sisseton, S.D. – has expanded into North Dakota.

“We’re excited about coming to North Dakota. We think it’s going to be a good partnership,” said David Schiltz, one of the owners of the family operation.

About 8,000 breeder geese have gone to a farm near Tolna, where a goose hatchery could be established in a vacant turkey processing plant.

Another 6,000 breeder geese have gone to sites near Lidgerwood, and Hatton, with each site receiving about 3,000 birds.

And the Schiltzes are working with the University of North Dakota Research Foundation to develop a therapeutic treatment for West Nile virus, and vaccines using geese and goose antibodies.

Most of the work is done under confidentiality agreements, said Richard Schiltz and James Pettel, executive director of the UND Research Foundation.

Major breakthroughs in the fight against West Nile virus, which infects mainly birds but can also infect humans, could be coming in the next few years, Pettel said.

The foundation, affiliated with the Red River Valley Research Corridor, is doing cutting-edge research in life sciences.

Being closer to the research corridor – and making it easier to supply geese and goose eggs for study – is one reason the Schiltzes expanded into North Dakota, Schiltz said.

The family began raising geese in 1944 in Iowa, and moved in 1980 to Sisseton.

The Sisseton site was getting crowded, so company officials decided last fall to move some of the geese.

Moving well away from the current site was important to reduce the possibility of contamination from one farm to another.

Moving north was important, too, because geese do better in a colder climate than a warm one, Schiltz said.

Tolna is a good fit for the operation.

The area around Tolna, about 125 miles northwest of Fargo, once was home to 500,000 turkeys, guessed Bob Engen, president of Farmers and Merchants State Bank of Tolna.

But that changed when major industry players increasingly began producing their own turkeys, rather than buying the birds from others, he said.

Engen estimated about 50,000 turkeys remain in the Tolna area, down from the peak of 500,000, leaving vacant turkey barns for the Schiltzes to occupy.

The Schiltzes bought a Tolna-area farmstead on which turkeys once were raised.

The empty turkey barn and other buildings on the farmstead are ideal for raising geese, Schiltz said.

The family business moved one of its managers and his family from South Dakota to the Tolna farmstead.

“For a community our size, the impact of what the Schiltzs are doing is significant,” Engen said.

Six jobs have been created on the three North Dakota farms.

The economics of geese and turkey production differ, Engen and Schiltz said.

The geese industry is far smaller than the chicken and turkey industries – so small that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has little data on it.

The Schiltzes say they’re confident they’re the largest producer and processor of geese in North America.

More jobs could be added in Tolna if the Schiltzes take over the turkey processing plant, which has been idle since the late 1990s, and convert it into a goose hatchery.

It’s too soon to know whether that will happen.

Schiltz officials have talked with the North Dakota Department of Commerce about getting some help with the project, but no decisions have been made, said Shane Goettle, state commerce commissioner.

He said he’s impressed with the business.

“These guys really seem to know what they’re doing,” he said.

The contributions the business can make to rural North Dakota – and the fight against West Nile – are significant, Goettle said.

Of the 14,000 Schiltz geese in North Dakota, about 75 percent are female and lay eggs in the late winter and spring.

Each of the female birds will lay about 35 eggs this year, producing a total of about 367,500 eggs.

Until and unless a North Dakota hatchery is established, the eggs will be taken to South Dakota, where they’ll hatch under tightly controlled conditions.

Some of the eggs will be infertile or lost to cracks. Of the 367,500 eggs, roughly 200,000 will develop into goslings.

Some of those 200,000 will die or be held back as replacement breeders.

About 150,000 of the birds will be sold this fall when they weigh an average of 16 pounds, of which about 11 pounds are meat.

Other parts of the geese, including the feathers, are sold, too.

Much of the meat is sold on the East Coast to customers of European descent, often during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.

Some Schiltz geese have been served during the annual U.S. presidential Christmas meal, most recently during the administration of the first President Bush.

Schiltz geese were seen in “Sneakers,” a 1992 film starring Robert Redford. The film company rented the geese, transporting them to California for filming and then back to South Dakota.

The forays into film and presidential meals aside, the Schiltzes run a down-to-earth family business that wants a long, mutually beneficial relationship with Tolna and North Dakota, Schiltz said.

“We’re just real optimistic things will work out for everyone,” he said.

Quick primer on geese

Following is some basic information about geese:

- Domestic geese originally were bred in ancient Egypt, China and India but arrived in America from Europe.

- Young geese are known as goslings. Male geese are ganders.

- South Dakota and California lead the nation in geese production.

- All geese are federally or state inspected.

- Americans eat on average about one-third of a pound of geese annually.

- Because geese swim, they have a fat layer beneath the skin that keeps them buoyant. The fat layer must have melted and disappeared for a cooked bird to be done.

- Goose meat has a stronger flavor than chicken breast meat or chicken leg meat.

- The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking whole geese to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

- Goose meat can be found in many larger grocery stores or ordered online at www.schiltzfoods.com.

Source: USDA, Schiltz Goose Farms

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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