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An innovative farm couple changed an industry

On Jan. 4 this year, an Iowa farmer who changed the poultry industry in many countries and the processing of broilers for food in the U.S. passed away. Many people who knew him and his wife, who died almost a year earlier of cancer, respected the...

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

On Jan. 4 this year, an Iowa farmer who changed the poultry industry in many countries and the processing of broilers for food in the U.S. passed away. Many people who knew him and his wife, who died almost a year earlier of cancer, respected them as much as I did.

This gentleman's ashes were buried alongside his wife's ashes in a serene hilltop township cemetery overlooking gorgeous, rolling Iowa farmland. Their two children gave me permission to write this tribute.

This gracious man didn't think of himself as anyone special. He thought his wife was special, though; they were best friends as well as mates. They met at a roller skating rink in the late 1940s and married in 1949.

While still a high schooler, he drove a school bus to pick up other students, custom plowed for neighbors, farmed 80 rented acres by himself and acquired mechanical skills working at a local auto garage. In 1954, the couple began raising turkeys on their farm, starting with 5,000 birds the first year and gradually increasing to 120,000 per year by 1977.

Along with hired hands, they farmed 1,200 acres, both owned and rented. His partner in marriage handled the bookkeeping, along with caring for their two sons when they were youngsters. Things were going well for them until the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

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The price for turkeys fell drastically while interest rates on borrowed money rose to 18 to 21 percent in the mid-1980s. They had to shut down their operation and held an auction to sell some of their land and farm equipment.

They decided he would serve in the Peace Corps. From 1984 to 1989 he worked overseas helping farmers in underdeveloped countries to raise poultry while his wife kept things running at home. During the growing season he returned home as frequently as possible to farm the family's remaining land, which they eventually paid for despite stressful times.

Many of his consulting projects were underwritten by the World Bank and the African Development Bank to improve the diets and income levels of impoverished communities and nations. The poorest country where he worked was Mali in western Africa, which he said had a per capita annual income of $180 at the time.

In 1989, the couple saw an opportunity to raise broiler chickens for the Campbell Soup Company and to take advantage of their already established facilities, including a feed mill. They also leased several vacant hog feeding units and began finishing 5,000 pigs yearly.

When Campbell's made the decision to find other suppliers of chickens several years later, they and 25 other broiler producers purchased a poultry processing plant in Tecumseh, Neb., and founded the Smart Chicken Company. Guided significantly by this farmer's innovative recommendations, the consortium set strict standards for their chicken production, butchering and merchandising.

The chickens were raised without cages, antibiotics and growth stimulants; they grew larger, meatier and with less fat than most chickens available in grocery stores and other meat markets. The couple's own enterprise supplied 300,000 broilers yearly, using portable buildings and pens which they regularly moved around in alfalfa fields.

Each bird was processed separately and individually air-chilled to near freezing immediately after butchering. Individual chickens were never washed with other chickens; there was almost no water in their vacuum-sealed bags.

The processed and cooled chickens were transported unfrozen and sold as fresh meat. Some 4,000 retailers nationwide now sell Smart Chickens. Their methods of broiler production, processing and merchandising have set quality standards for the poultry industry.

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At age 71, this gentleman retired from poultry production. He was severely injured in a fall from a grain bin. I don't know if his injuries contributed to ending their poultry production, but his impact on the industry has not ceased.

He served on the boards of the Iowa Turkey Federation and the Iowa Poultry Association. He was active all his life in civic affairs and was a board member for 65 years on the consolidated telephone company that serves most of our county.

He and other local farmers established a small but capable fire department in their community. He chaired his community centennial celebration; he worked to preserve pioneer cemeteries in western Iowa.

It was always fun to visit this farm couple, and I did so often during recent years. We shared our perceptions about a lot of matters and learned from each other.

My friend was devastated when the love of his life developed brain cancer. He became depressed, but he recovered and had several happier months thereafter. He was highly spiritual although he and his wife seldom attended church.

What is most inspiring to many is the example this farm couple demonstrated as humble, generous and innovative farmers. They always got back on their feet after being knocked down. Were we all like them, agriculture, our country and the whole world would be better off.

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