Olson praised as a key leader in Minnesota's turkey industry

WILLMAR -- Even at 91, it was a rare day that Earl B. Olson didn't visit the Jennie-O corporate office in Willmar. It was second nature to check out what was new in the turkey business that he launched nearly 60 years ago.

WILLMAR -- Even at 91, it was a rare day that Earl B. Olson didn't visit the Jennie-O corporate office in Willmar. It was second nature to check out what was new in the turkey business that he launched nearly 60 years ago.

"Earl was a regular fixture here in the office on a daily basis," said Mike Tolbert, president of the Jennie-O Turkey Store. "He was always there cheering us on."

Olson, who died Monday, had continued to serve on the board of directors at Jennie-O, attended regular meetings and conferences and offered his advice about ways to help the industry grow, said Tolbert. Olson had a meeting just last Thursday with the vice president of live turkey production.

"He still had plans to do things," said Don Handahl, who worked as Olson's administrative vice-president for 52 years.

"He was a visionary person and he was always charging ahead," Handahl said. "He pulled this turkey industry along."


Word of Olson's passing was felt throughout the industry.

"It's a sad day," Tolbert said.

The family notified the corporate office Monday morning.

Even though Olson had been ill, his death "took us all by surprise this morning," said Tolbert during an interview Monday.

"When I look back on the industry, it's people like Earl who made a difference and made this industry so successful," said Steve Olson, president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

He said Olson was a "key leader" in Minnesota's turkey industry, in part because of innovations in developing turkey products, like the turkey roll and hotdog, that went far beyond the Thanksgiving meal.

"When I think of Earl, the word that comes to mind is genuine," Olson said. He was "very entrepreneurial" and encouraged everyone in the industry to keep advancing.

"One thing that Earl stood for, it was growth," Handahl said.


Olson began processing turkeys in Willmar in 1949 at what was then the Farmers Produce Company. He founded Jennie-O in 1953 and sold the company to Hormel in 1986.

The business, which distributes products across the United States and in 26 countries, is now called Jennie-O Turkey Store Inc. and is the largest turkey processor and marketer in the world.

The easy success Jennie-O now enjoys wasn't the case when Olson started the business in 1949.

"It was a struggle," said Handahl, who worked closely with Olson from the beginning of the turkey entrepreneur's career.

The early years of the industry were very difficult, Handahl said. "Business was tough and there wasn't a lot of money." More profitable times started around 1970.

During times when turkey sold for a paltry 29-cents a pound and when fires struck processing plants in Willmar, Litchfield and Melrose, Handahl said Olson always strove to move ahead.

"He had that amazing sticktoitivness. He never gave up," Handahl said. "No matter how tough it got, he always had a bright outlook."

"He was a hard worker," said Dr. Peter Poss, who worked with Olson for 34 years as a poultry veterinarian and eventually vice president of Olson's farm operations.


Making the decision to sell the business to Hormel took years, Handahl said.

He'd had other offers, but Handahl said Olson wanted to sell to a Minnesota company that "had the same kind of thinking that he did as far as treatment of the employees and the same culture as we had in our plants. He was waiting for that kind of a company to come along," he said. "Hormel had romanced him for a number of years before he finally agreed."

Handahl said Olson was pleased with the sale in the end.

Poss said Olson was known for treating all his employees well.

"He was a strong believer in taking care of his employees and was able to keep unionization from his plant," Poss said. "People were being taken care of without the union."

During the 52 years that Handahl worked as Olson's right-hand man the two men "never had a harsh word." Handahl said Olson was "gentle in his approach, but firm. ... He was a tough business man, believe me. But he was very fair."

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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