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Permits from Kandiyohi County, Minn., would allow Jennie-O to increase bird numbers in existing barns

This 2011 photo shows turkeys in a barn in Kandiyohi County. Jennie-O Turkey Store is seeking conditional use permits to increase the number of turkeys housed in existing barns. The final market weight would be less, according to the company, and the total pounds produced in each barn would thus be about the same. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- A desire for a smaller bird to meet new market demands could change how the Jennie-O Turkey Store raises turkeys in Kandiyohi County.

The company is seeking conditional use permits for five sites in four different townships that will allow them to increase the number of the turkeys housed in the existing barns.

But because the final market weight would be a couple pounds less than the typical market weight of the birds, the total pounds of turkeys produced in each barn would be about the same as it is now, according to Steve Onnen, from Jennie-O Turkey Store.

Onnen told the Kandiyohi County Planning Commission on Monday that the company is not expanding its barns but increasing the number of smaller birds in the barns. Because the number of animal units is increasing, the company needs conditional use permits.

"It's a very appropriate and valid request," said County Commissioner Harlan Madsen, who also serves on the Planning Commission.

But Cathy Miller, a resident from Willmar, objected to the plan.

"My conscience called me here tonight," said Miller, who questioned "crowding" more turkeys into a barn.

"I feel badly about what's happening inside those barns," she said, noting that large restaurant chains are taking a stand and demanding that meat and animal products they use be raised in humane environments.

Miller encouraged the board to go to the turkey barns and "see what it's like"

Chairman John Dean said three members of the board do visit each site that's requesting a conditional use permit prior to making a decision.

Zoning Administrator Gary Geer said the county is working with Jennie-O on the permits and said the company has changed ventilation systems, which has improved air quality in the barns.

Bill Benson, who lives near one of the sites, questioned the company's use of water and the potential impact it could have on residents. "If we keep drawing more water, we'll run out," he said.

Madsen said the appropriation of water is controlled by the state Department of Natural Resources and is not under the jurisdiction of the county.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved all five conditional use permits for the company.

They include three barns at one site in Roseville Township where the total number of turkeys will increase from the current 100,000 to a new population of 120,000 and five barns at another Roseville Township site where the total number of birds will go from 90,000 to 114,000.

A permit in Arctander Township would increase the total number of birds from 17,300 to 27,500 in two barns at that site.

In St. Johns Township, three existing barns there would house 90,000 birds. The current permitted number is 76,000.

Three barns in Kandiyohi Township would go from 41,700 birds to 54,000 birds.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners is expected to take final action on the permits at its meeting Tuesday.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750