September 1, 2010

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Strength in Numbers

A Small-town Co-op with International Reach

Nick Bundra

September 1, 2010

This and every holiday season, hundreds of Utahns will trek to the heart of central Utah to visit Moroni, a rural community in Sanpete County—not for a seasonal pageant, but to get a fresh Norbest turkey.

Sanpete County is Utah’s current turkey-growing capital, but it owes thanks to the foresight of farmers in other parts of the state.

In 1930, a group of Utah turkey farmers working cooperatively under the name Utah Poultry joined with turkey entities from seven other states to form a larger marketing cooperative, the Northwestern Turkey Growers Association. With some marketing ingenuity, that mouthful of a name eventually morphed into Norbest, Inc.

Fortuitously for Sanpete farmers, Norbest headquartered relatively close in Salt Lake City. However, the Sanpete farmers were primarily beet farmers—until those crops failed them during the Great Depression. Experimenting with alternative ventures, they found success with turkey growing. After they were threatened by buyers trying to instigate pricing wars, the farmers formed a cooperative, Moroni Feed Company, in January 1938 and quickly joined Norbest.

Fast forward 72 years later and Moroni Feed is the largest private employer in Sanpete County. As of last year, it is also the sole owner of the Norbest brand.

This is not a corporate takeover story, though. The farms of the 47 grower-owners that comprise the co-op all stand within a 20-mile radius of Moroni Feed. And, according to Manti native and Norbest CEO Kent Barton, they all share the distinction of being family-owned operations.

Tim Blackham, for instance, learned the turkey-growing business from both his father and maternal grandfather, one of the original founders of Moroni Feed. He took over his family farm in 1980.

“It’s not an easy living, but it’s a great life,” Blackham says. He has especially prized how his now grown children learned discipline through participating in the hard work. Appreciative of the kinship it has built in several generations, he hopes the farm remains in the family but tells his children, “Come back to the farm because you want to, not because you have to.”

Turkey farming has many external challenges as well. During 2008, the year Barton transitioned into his current role, he and other leaders at Moroni Feed faced “a perfect storm.” The price of corn, the company’s single largest cost and 60 percent of the turkeys’ diet, had more than tripled over its 10-year average. Concurrently, overproduction from 2007, a global decrease in demand, a tanking global economy and government subsidies for ethanol producers—whose demand had driven up corn prices in the first place—jeopardized the company’s survival.

Moroni Feed ceased production for 90 days, putting 450 corporate workers on the unemployment block. The family farms took a hit as well. Blackham estimates that for two to four weeks, there were absolutely no turkeys in the Sanpete Valley.

Like the sugar beet farmers who founded it, though, the cooperative’s members saw opportunity in disaster. Barton explains, “We went back to our core, to our model, which is progress through cooperation.”

Reinvigorated, the cooperative’s farmers resumed production in March of 2009. And Norbest has expanded its brand further into the retail sector with restaurants and other foodservices. Diligently working to preserve and build a quality brand that Utahns have long trusted, Barton and Blackham promise that customers will find more Norbest offerings year round at local retailers.

Regardless, they warmly welcome visitors to Moroni. Anyone who visits will see the relics of hard work and cooperation progressively benefiting the local and, consequently, all Utah communities.

 

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