She's a 6th generation for the birds
KENSINGTON, Minn. — Erica Sawatzke is joining a tradition of turkey production that dates back to the Civil War, with lots of female and male role models.
Sawatzke, 30, early this year left a staff post with the Minnesota poultry groups to join her family's Oakdale Farms Inc., of Kensington, Minn. Sawatzke joins her father, Dana Nelson, and his brother, Paul, who now manage Oakdale Farms. The farm has about 8,000 breeding turkey laying hens, with another 8,000 young stock, as well as corn and soybeans.
Her homecoming has been marked by challenges right off the bat — notably a wind storm that hit the farm on June 13, 2017. The presumed tornado destroyed three buildings and left roof damage on three of six turkey buildings, sending debris in all directions. They are still counting the "hundreds of thousands" in damage, but no turkeys or people were hurt, and they got lots of community support and help.
"When you live in a small community, it shows the closeness," Erica says. "When you know how much damage you have, it's hard to breathe it in. Knowing you have all these people who come to help you, it gives a light into the future that (shows) we can make it through this."
Erica's great-great-great grandfather, Ole Sarsland, immigrated from Norway to Wisconsin in 1848 and served in the Civil War in 1863. After the war, he moved to Kensington in 1866 and took advantage of the Homestead Act, which Abraham Lincoln signed into law in 1862. He was the first settler in Solem Township in Douglas County. He chose the site for its oak trees, which he used to build a barn.
Ole Sarsland had a diversified farm. His daughter, Julia, (Erica's great-great grandmother) married Christian Nelson and expanded into turkeys as a side income. With prosperity, the family built a wooden pavilion in 1918 that served as an entertainment site and roller-skating venue. It later was converted to turkey production, where Julia incubated the eggs in a kerosene-fired incubator.
Julia's son, Ole Nelson (Erica's great grandfather) raised black turkeys, Narransetts, and bronze turkeys. Ole built a barn specifically for his breeding hens.
"Market birds were raised outside on the range, so the barn was an upgrade — raising hens indoors, keeping them healthy on the breeding side of things," she says. "(Ole) and my great-grandmother Mildred did a lot of turkey showing the 1940s and 1950s. They would show a breeding and marketing pen of birds in shows from northern Minnesota to Nebraska."
Ole's sons Vernal (Erica's grandfather) and Omar took over management in the late 1950s and eventually dropped milking shorthorn cattle. Vernal and his wife, Marlene, purchased the farm in 1968 and eventually concentrated on turkeys and crops. Marlene won industry awards for her promotion of turkey products and was famous for getting the family in the act, marching in a turkey costume in parades, among other things.
Vernal's son, Dana Nelson, (Erica's dad) joined the farm full time in 1979 after graduating from North Dakota State University. Erica was born in 1986, the oldest of three daughters. Erica and her sisters participated in 4-H, including showing turkeys, sheep and horses. Erica remembers helping her father with the chores, picking eggs with her grandfather and preferring to stay home from child care at age 9 to help Grandpa on the farm.
In the early 1990s the Nelsons had dropped the market bird enterprise and focused on breeding.
Today, Oakdale Farms receives 8,000 poults at a time. At six weeks, they split them into three barns. At 30 weeks, the birds are split into two flocks of 4,000-hen egg-laying barns. Their laying cycle continues for another 28 weeks until the birds go to market.
The eggs must be fertilized, and the farm receives daily semen deliveries from a turkey "stud farm" in Willmar, Minn. All of the turkeys are artificially inseminated once a week during their full 28-week egg-laying cycle. Erica's uncle, Paul Nelson, leads a crew of three.
There are two sides of the laying barns.
"Once a week the turkeys are rotated, switched from side to side in the barn," Sawatzke says, which — along with controlled lighting — encourages egg laying.
Most eggs are laid in an "automatic nest" in which the back of the nest gently nudges the bird off the nest on the hour for 10 hours a day. The egg moves to a conveyor belt, which moves it to a collection table where employees place them in 25-egg cartons.
Oakdale Farms sells its eggs to a hatchery in Willmar, Minn., which hatches them and sells day-old poults to "independent" commercial turkey farmers who are raising market turkeys.
About 250 independent producers average about three flocks a year of about 15,000 turkeys in each batch. (Another 200 "contract" growers are connected to integrated companies.)
Erica always knew she wanted to come home to Oakdale Farms but wanted work experience elsewhere first.
She graduated from West Central Area High School in Barrett, Minn., in 2005. She went to North Dakota State University in Fargo and received an animal science degree in 2011. In 2013, she was hired as ag programs specialist for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association at Buffalo, Minn., and eventually added the membership coordinator responsibility.
In 2014, she was serving as a last-minute substitute judge for an FFA creed-speaking contest at the Dassel Cokato High School at Cokato, Minn. She met Eric Sawatzke, the vocational agriculture teacher and the two started dating.
"When we first met, I told him my long-term goal was to move back home and farm with my family," Erica says.
Erica and Eric were married on Aug. 6, 2016 — the 150th anniversary of the farm — and chose the old pavilion as their wedding site.
Last fall, the Nelsons agreed on how the newlyweds could fit into a succession plan. Six months ago, she moved home, and a month ago Eric was hired to be the agriculture teacher at the high school from which Erica graduated.
Erica says she and Eric hope to become the next generation caring for the farm. They hope to have children who could be the seventh generation to keep the tradition going.
Her biggest concern? "Not screwing up," she says. But she also is concerned about the increasing influence on producers from "people who don't understand how agriculture works."
Her biggest source of optimism? Strong and growing demand.
"People are liking our product, and there's always going to be a need for more turkey, hopefully," she says. "We want to be here for another 150 years."