Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom’s annual virtual tour brings thousands of students to a turkey farm

COTTONWOOD, Minn. — As a 22-year-old fresh out of college asking for millions of dollars to build new turkey barns, Hunter Kvistad jokes that he needed to find a banker with a sense of humor.

“Which I did,” Kvistad said. “I found a good banker with a sense of humor and we made it work.

What they did was two brand new turkey barns—a breeder and a finisher—in Yellow Medicine County in southwestern Minnesota. Each barn can hold 40,000 flocks of birds. Kvistad said the investment is about $3 million.

Hunter Kvistad has built two new turkey barns in Yellow Medicine County in southwest Minnesota.

Courtesy / Kvistad Farms

Kvistad graduated from Iowa State University in 2020 and launched the project during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first birds went to the barns in September 2021.

This year, Kvistad can share his own sense of humor while hosting a virtual tour of his operation at 10 a.m. Nov. 22 — two days before Thanksgiving — as part of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom.

The virtual field trips are one of several ways Minnesota Ag promotes agriculture in the classroom, with other recent tours including an apple orchard and a cattle ranch.

Another pre-Christmas tour planned is a visit to the Crystal Collection Reindeer Farm at Crystal Lake near Mankato in southern Minnesota.

Keri Sidle of Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom said the organization has visited the turkey farm just before Thanksgiving every year since 2016. Minnesota is the nation’s leading producer of turkeys, and the turkey farm is the most popular of the virtual tours. Sidle expects more than 100 elementary classrooms from 12 to 15 states to participate.

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Samantha Gessell of Badger Creek – Thirteen Acres Turkey Farm near Swanville, Minnesota was the 2021 farmer on the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom virtual turkey farm tour.

Courtesy / Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom

Interactive tours are conducted via Zoom, allowing students and teachers to ask questions live.

“We try to shout out the school or the students, and we’ve heard that they think it’s pretty cool when their name or the teacher’s name is mentioned live,” Sidle said.

The Zoom tour requires pre-registration, but the tour is also streamed on YouTube for anyone to watch.

In-person visits to turkey and other poultry farms are rare these days as the industry grapples with an outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu.

Bird flu has hit 105 farms in Minnesota in 2022, affecting more than 3.8 million birds, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. Outbreaks began in the spring, and the flu, which can be spread by migrating waterfowl, saw a resurgence in the fall.

Nationally, more than 50 million birds have been affected on poultry farms, with confirmed cases in 618 flocks.

Minnesota Agriculture in the classroom has never actually set foot on a turkey farm. The organization will send video and audio equipment to the farm where Kvistad and a local assistant can set it up and test it before going live with Agriculture in the Classroom’s Sue Knott serving as host from their home base in the Twin Cities.

So far, Kvistad and the turkey farm run by his parents, Paul and Jamie Kvistad, have managed to contain bird flu in the barns.

Hunter Kvistad admits to being careful about biosecurity and “lots of disinfectants,” even using a sprayer around buildings and on the town road leading to his farm.

Paul Kvistad’s turkey farm was the site of the first virtual turkey farm tour in 2016. Sidle said technology has come a long way, but the key is finding a turkey barn with a good Internet connection.

This is something Hunter’s new modern barns should be able to provide.

“Part of why we love doing it live is it’s a lot more fun and exciting to watch something live, even if it has a few hiccups, than watching a video,” Sidle said. However, Zoom technology also allows Sidle to take photos or videos of things that might not be available live, such as a shipment of new poultry arriving at the farm.

Hunter Kvistada’s farm is not far from his parents’ farm, and he and his father farm about 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans.

Kvistad is able to handle the day-to-day work on the turkey farm by himself. He said he gets help from his parents a few days a year, such as when the birds can be moved from one barn to another.

Modern technology allows him to run things mostly independently. He is able to monitor and control most of his operations from his smartphone. It also allows him to live in the town of Cottonwood, about 10 miles from his barns, between Wood Lake and Echo.

He raises six flocks of hens a year, each flock taking about 12 weeks to reach a market weight of 13 to 15 pounds.

They are processed at the Jennie-O plant in Melrose, Minnesota. Kvistad’s birds are sold as whole turkeys, like the approximately 46 million turkeys Americans will serve on Thanksgiving. He said that means handling the turkeys carefully so there are no bumps and bruises on the birds.

“Everybody wants it to look perfect,” Kvistad said of the Thanksgiving turkey.

His fledgling farm is capable of producing about 3 million pounds of turkeys a year.

“I like the idea of ​​feeding a lot of people,” Kvistad said.

He realizes people will pay more for their Thanksgiving turkeys this year, which he attributes to the high cost of corn, which is used to feed livestock.

“I’m spending a fortune,” Kvistad said.

He said each flock of 40,000 birds requires about 1 million pounds of feed — about 2 pounds of feed per 1 pound of turkey.

Even so, one of the reasons Kvistad was able to convince the banker to provide the initial loan is that turkeys are a stable market and good cash flow.

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Big Tom, the “World’s Largest Turkey,” stands over 20 feet tall and oversees Lions Park in Frazee, Minnesota.

Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

On Kvistad’s Thanksgiving Day, the family will go to his grandmother’s house near Frazee in northwest Minnesota. (Frazee is also home to the world’s largest turkey.)

He said there would be about 25 people.

When asked what his favorite Thanksgiving side dish is, Kvistad replied, “Does pumpkin pie count?”

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