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New Minnesota Turkey Growers Association leader learns the industry from the outside

Ashley Kohls was named executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Minnesota Turkey Research & Promotion Council late last month.

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Ashley Kohls
Contributed / Minnesota Turkey Growers Association
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Ashley Kohls is no stranger to Minnesota agriculture or commodity group leadership, and that will help her lead an industry facing significant challenges, namely avian flu. 

Kohls was named executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Minnesota Turkey Research & Promotion Council late last month. 

Previously, Kohls served as the executive director for the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association and, most recently, as the vice president of government affairs for Nebraska Cattlemen.

“Ashley’s past work in supporting and cultivating organizational growth is exactly what our association needs,” said Pete Klaphake, MTRPC president. “She’s already bringing fresh ideas and showing eagerness to learn about the industry.”

Kohls and her family are the fourth generation to work and reside on their farm outside of Hutchinson, Minnesota. 

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“It’s fun working within Minnesota agriculture and also having skin in the game, and being part of Minnesota agriculture,” said Kohls, who grew up on a farm in Iowa. “And then raise the next generation of folks who will be the face of agriculture, with my two kiddos.”

Road to leadership

Kohls graduated from South Dakota State University with degrees in animal science and microbiology and said she considered vet school before interning at Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Iowa, where she grew up.

Instead, she followed the food safety route after graduating college and worked as an assistant scientist at the University of Minnesota before working at First District Association — a milk plant in Litchfield, Minnesota.

From there, she was recruited by the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, in which she served as the executive director for five years, along with serving as the beef quality assurance coordinator for the Minnesota Beef Council.

“It was an opportunity for me to get closer to the beef side of things, and so an opportunity that I took,” she said. “And that set the course for the next 10 years of working in association management ag policy.”

Kohls said she found working for commodity groups to be an enjoyable experience.

“I found it rewarding and really enjoyed working with the farmers and the producer members of the organizations and hearing about what was directly impacting them in their specific region within a state,” said Kohls. “And if there was something that could or needed to be done, to better facilitate their freedom to operate and preserve legacy and pass it onto their next generation.”

No farm visits

In her first few months of leading the MTGA, Kohls said it will be a lot of learning about the ins-and-outs of the poultry industry. 

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“I'm not a complete novice in the poultry industry, and I have some understanding of the science behind it just from some of the experiences that I've had,” said Kohls. “But as far as the day-to-day of what happens on a farm within the poultry industry is completely new to me.”

Learning that side of the industry will be difficult for Kohls to start, as highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks ramp up once again in the state and throughout the Midwest . Kohls said she’s not able to visit any MTGA member farms at the moment, or for the foreseeable future. 

“I'll get to that point,” said Kohls of touring farms. “And I've had conversations with a lot of board members, just trying to find a time that would be ideal for me to come in and see birds, whether it's right before they're ready to put in a new flock, or towards the end.”

Right now, she’s filling her days doing a lot of research and reading up on the organization. 

“I'm spending my time learning about the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association on the policy side, but also how their checkoff functions,” she said. “So I'm spending a lot of time reading documents, asking questions, and trying to find out what I know and what I don't know.”

Having worked on the legislative side of commodity group leadership for Nebraska Cattlemen, Kohls said she knows it’ll take a lot of introductory conversations with legislators to be where she wants to be. 

“Just getting back and trying to re-introduce myself to a lot of the players in Minnesota ag policy is also what I’m spending a fair amount of time doing as well,” she said.

Jes Westbrock, MTGA president, said that’s one of the reasons Kohls will make a good leader for the group. 

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“We believe Ashley’s experience with government affairs will help our turkey farmers navigate legislative changes on both the state and federal levels,” said Westbrock. 

HPAI

Kohls said the industry has learned a lot since the last HPAI outbreak in 2015. 

“When we look at what the industry learned in 2015 to what the industry is experiencing today — the pain and heartbreak is the same, but the response has drastically improved,” said Kohls. “They've been able to go back and look at what they did in 2015 and kind of course correct and figure out how they can better respond to make sure the interruption for the farmer is minimal, then also the interruption for the consumer is also minimal, especially as we get into this time of year.”

Despite recent outbreaks, Kohls said consumers shouldn’t worry about there being enough turkeys for the holiday season. 

“They don't anticipate that there will be a shortage of turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she said. “There's plenty of turkeys available now, and in the freezers, and there will be plenty of turkeys available when it comes to Thanksgiving.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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