When it comes to food, Utah is known for a few dishes, most notably Jell-O, which Utahns routinely consume at a rate unparalleled by other states. Then there is that other famous local delicacy: funeral potatoes. Utahns also have a ravenous lust for national chains, such as The Cheesecake Factory and In-N-Out Burger.
But in Sanpete Valley, where Mormon pioneer towns such as Fairview, Manti, Ephraim and Mount Pleasant are beaded along Highway 89 at consistent and picturesque intervals, one agricultural product reigns over the others: turkeys.
Outward indications of the turkey economy aren't easy to spot along Highway 89. But if you head south on Interstate 15, exiting onto State Route 132, you will see them come into view as you enter the valley from the west, past the southern flank of Mount Nebo. The squat metal barns stretch out in linear patterns on the outskirts of towns like Fountain Green and Moroni.
Employment statistics compiled in 2009 by the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a nonprofit that promotes industry, show that Norbest LLC, Utah's largest turkey processing operation—rivals Snow College in Ephraim as Sanpete County's largest employer.
The turkey industry is "tremendously important," says Bob Wangerien, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Norbest. Roughly "one in five [Sanpete County residents] is associated, or revenue is probably associated, with Norbest," Wangerien says.
The average American eats around 15 pounds of turkey per year. To help meet that demand, he says, Norbest will produce 4.2 million turkeys this year totaling more than 100 million pounds. Utahns buy only about 10 to 15 percent of Norbest's turkeys, Wangerien says, a statistic born of the fact that Norbest's turkeys outnumber Utahns by 1.2 million.
Utah's wholesale turkey industry accounted for $71 million of the state's total $1.8 billion in 2014 livestock earnings, according to Larry Lewis of the Utah Department of Agriculture & Food.
Norbest operated as a co-op until August of this year, when it became an LLC. Roughly 40 percent of the area's turkey farmers own an interest in it. This helps insulate the farmers from rapid cost shifts and market swings, Wangerien says.
Gary Cox (no immediate relation to Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is also from Sanpete Valley) is a third-generation turkey farmer. His operation, Southwest Farms in Manti, is the largest turkey farm in the state, producing 500,000 male turkeys, known as toms.
When one refers to a turkey being "grown"—like a head of lettuce or a tomato—there is some truth to it.
Cox says he receives baby turkeys, or poults, from breeders in California, Iowa and Minnesota, the nation's largest turkey-producing state. Just a couple of weeks old, they are small upon arrival, but they start to mature quickly on a diet of corn and soybeans. An important factor in the growth of a turkey is the temperature at which the 60-feet by 600-feet poultry barns are kept.
"Most people don't realize how it's a very technical business," says Cox. "Most of our facilities are run by computers, so that everything is monitored to a half of a degree to make sure the turkeys are extremely comfortable."
During the early stages of the birds' lives, Cox keeps the barns at a balmy 90 degrees. But as the turkeys mature, Cox says, the heat is gradually reduced until the air reaches a temperature between 62 and 65 degrees. Then, at an old age of 14 to 16 weeks, the birds have reached full maturity—around 14 pounds for a female, up to 40 pounds for a male—and they're sold for processing.
Turkey farming was once more common throughout Utah, Cox says. At one time, he says, a smattering of growers existed in Cache County; and, a few years ago, Norbest operated a hatching facility in St. George, where eggs were sent to incubate. He says that while high elevations are suitable for breeding turkeys, hatch rates are increased at lower elevations.
Although the industry became centralized in Sanpete County, Cox and Wangerien say Norbest is looking to expand elsewhere. Cox says new barns are being built across the state by farmers looking to diversify their agricultural products. And Wangerien says Norbest is looking to double in size over the next two to three years.
"[Farmers have] tons and tons of buildings going into this state, and we're going to be expanding into a lot of areas," Cox says.
And, like the fabled alfalfa grown in Utah's high mountain valleys that is sought after the world over, so, Wangerien says, are these mountain-grown turkeys—a roughly 5,000-foot-above-sea-level advantage that birds grown in the Beehive State have over those grown in other parts of the country.
"We think it adds a little uniqueness to our bird," Wangerien says.