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He keeps turkeys safe in the heart of Kandiyohi County

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County is definitely not the place you want to be in the days before Thanksgiving if you are a turkey. Unless, that is, you are a colorful bird and happen to make your roost on Kornell Erickson's farm a few miles south of Wil...

Kornell Erickson has bourbon red and chocolate turkeys on his farm. Briana Sanchez / Forum News Service
Kornell Erickson has Bourbon red and chocolate turkeys among the many heritage birds he raises on his rural Willmar farm. Briana Sanchez / Tribune

WILLMAR - Kandiyohi County is definitely not the place you want to be in the days before Thanksgiving if you are a turkey.

Unless, that is, you are a colorful bird and happen to make your roost on Kornell Erickson's farm a few miles south of Willmar.

His 40 turkeys are all heritage birds. They are safe from the fate that awaits other turkeys in the county that raises and processes more of these birds than any other in the nation.

"I just really enjoy having 'em around,'' said Erickson, age 78. "I never feel I am alone.''

By no means is he alone. Along with the 40 turkeys, Erickson keeps 200 guineafowl, a trio of Muscovy ducks, a goose he said is in need of a partner, and for good measure, a colorful peacock.

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The operative word here is color. Erickson loves the mixed plumage of heritage breeds, with their rich browns, hues of red, and the iridescence of their feathers in sunlight.

He has been raising and cross-breeding turkeys and guineas since 1988 at the farm. He had moved from a family farm near Kindred, North Dakota, to Willmar two years earlier.

He currently keeps a mix of breeds or strains of heritage turkeys: Bourbon red, Narragansett, Calico sweetgrass, chocolate, and a royal palm cross.

In the interest of full disclosure, Erickson has put a turkey or two in the roaster. If he raises a turkey with a deformity - say a crooked foot or in one case a bent neck - he will remove it from the flock and serve it on the table.

And for good reason, too. Erickson said the flavor of the meat from the free-range, dark-colored turkeys he raises is far superior to the bland-white turkeys raised in confinement, and stacked in grocery store freezers like frozen bowling balls. "You can't believe the difference in the meat,'' he said.

He raises a few free range chickens for his table too, and prefers these most of all.

All of his birds are given free range on the property through the entire year, although he protects some of the rare-colored birds inside a building during the worst of winter. He's never had any issues with disease in his flocks, even in the midst of the avian influenza outbreak.

"I do not feed any antibiotics. They are out in the fresh air, they eat bugs, they eat grass, pick berries too,'' he said.

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He supplements their diets in the winter with commercial feed, and makes sure it contains no antibiotics.

The birds are noisy and entertaining. He's watched his dominant big tom turkey scrap with three wild turkeys that wandered on to the farm. The peacock has a habit of following Erickson to the house, or waiting for him to come out in the morning. Erickson said the bird starts hollering if he is tardy about coming out.

And yet, this is a quieter version of life for Erickson. He once had a menagerie of livestock at the farm. He still keeps a few pigs, but he previously also raised sheep, goats, horses and donkeys on this site.

He continues to raise fresh produce at what he calls Kornell's Garden. Most of his produce is sold on-site. This year's bounty was such he had to unload the end-of-season surplus at the farmers market.

But when he's not gardening, it's the birds that have his eyes. He experiments and uses artificial insemination to cross-breed the birds to produce different colors in the birds. He will sell the birds to others raising heritage breeds.

"I love my birds. They love me too,'' he said.

And come Thanksgiving, Erickson said he loves nothing better than lutefisk.

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Related Topics: KANDIYOHI COUNTY
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