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Back in the day: History of Jennie-O, Willmar Poultry Company

It’s not uncommon for Minnesota turkey producers to be the third or fourth generation in their family to produce gobblers. Past generations had range turkeys with seasonal markets, but today’s processors want turkeys year-round to keep production and employment steady. So how big of a deal is Thanksgiving in the overall turkey picture?

Jennie-O spokesperson Pat Solheid said, “Of course Thanksgiving, where the meal has traditionally centered around a whole turkey as the focal point, is an important holiday to those in the turkey industry. And while we take great pride in our whole turkey business, most of our focus at Jennie-O Turkey Store is providing consumers with great tasting, better-for-you products like ground turkey, turkey bacon, turkey burgers and sandwich meats on a year-round basis. Turkey is an ideal protein for those that are health conscious. We’re in a long-term partnership with The Biggest Loser, which is now in its 15th season.”

Jennie-O Foods Inc. had its beginning in 1949, when Earl B. Olson, the son of Swedish immigrants, bought the Farmers Produce Company of Willmar and its turkey processing. Olson, who was a graduate of the West Central School of Agriculture in Morris (now the University of Minnesota-Morris), had begun raising turkeys nine years earlier. He rebranded the company in 1953, naming it for his daughter, Jennifer, and the first letter of the family name. By then he had developed the enterprise into a USDA-inspected eviscerated turkey plant that would be a pioneer in developing new turkey products.

Also significant was Wallace Jerome, who founded the Turkey Store Company in 1941. Sixty years later, Jennie-O Foods Inc. and The Turkey Store Company were consolidated under the company Hormel to create the Jennie-O Turkey Store.

Like Jennie-O, the Willmar Poultry Company has a long history in the area. Founded in 1945 as Willmar Poultry and Egg Company by three partners, its purpose was to improve the turkey processing and hatching industries. The goal set by Albert Huisinga, Herman Nelson and Albin Norling nearly 70 years ago has resulted in the company’s leadership in poultry genetics, biotechnology, agriculture and engineering. The Willmar Poultry Company includes farms, a feed mill and a hatchery in the Willmar area, as well as a processing plant in Marshall.

-Carlienne A. Frisch