Life Has been a Series of Opportunities for this Iowa Turkey Farmer
Wanda Olson grew up on a typical 1960s Iowa farm near Stanhope that included a 20-cow dairy, sows on pasture, a small farrowing building plus about a dozen chickens, several barn cats and, of course, a good farm dog. While this scene is similar to other Iowa farms during this time period, what happened next is something Wanda wouldn’t have been able to predict.
“I got married and moved just 15 miles away to Ellsworth, which is turkey country,” says Wanda. “My father-in-law operated a turkey bedding supply business and my mother-in-law was a long-time Land O’Lakes turkey plant office employee. Randy worked in the local cooperative’s feed mill, making turkey and hog feed.”
The first year of marriage brings about many changes for every couple, and that was certainly the case for Randy and Wanda. Early in 1978, Randy and his father had been approached about farming some land. Randy’s parents made a down payment on that farm in June that year, and then the newlyweds moved there after their August 1978 wedding.
Two generations of the Olson family partnered to build a 45-stall farrowing house on the farm where Randy and Wanda made their home. They also grew turkeys from hatch to nine weeks for Louis Rich as the acreage already had an existing turkey barn.
Within a year of their wedding, Randy quit working at the feed mill to farm fulltime as raising crops, farrowing and caring for sows placed more demands on his time. To provide additional income, Wanda worked fulltime at Iowa State University for two years and then at a local law firm for five more years.
“It’s the story of our generation,” says Wanda. “We did what we had to do.”
The couple worked hard to grow their operation and to also repay Randy’s parents for their farm. Then a brooder house fire in December 1985 forced Randy and Wanda to rethink their operation. They either had to build their own complete turkey setup or stop raising turkeys and expand their pork operation.
“We decided it was easier to handle 24-pound turkeys than 400-pound sows in dirt lots,” says Wanda. The couple decided to commit their resources to turkey production and hasn’t looked back.
In 1992, Randy and Wanda had an opportunity to buy another turkey farm. They moved onto the larger farm. Randy’s dad was involved full time with their farming operation, so they picked up more ground.
The Olson family farm was working like clockwork until Randy’s dad passed away in 1993. Randy and Wanda had to make another decision that would determine the fate of their operation. Their three kids were ages 7, 11 and 12 that year. With more responsibilities and time commitments than they could handle alone, the couple hired a full-time farm hand.
The twists in the Olson family farming operating took a sharp turn in 1995 when Louis Rich gave a one-year notice that it was ceasing operations in Iowa. That meant there would be no more Louis Rich production contracts for local turkey producers. In addition, the turkey processing plant in West Liberty – where more than 65 percent of the turkeys raised in Iowa were processed – was going to close.
The Louis Rich company-owned turkey farms were put on the auction block, and the sale of those farms presented another opportunity for the Olsons. Where some producers would see risk, Randy and Wanda identified an opportunity. The couple bought two of the former Louis Rich company turkey farms in December 1996.
“We went from being a contract grower to owning all these facilities and all of the birds. We went from having two employees to seven employees overnight,” recalls Wanda with a laugh. “It’s a good thing we were a lot younger then because it really was a lot of work! Those years are such a blur.”
While it was a lot of work, Wanda also recalls the late 1990s with fondness. She credits Paul Hill for organizing a group of Iowa turkey producers and saving a good portion of Iowa’s turkey industry. Forty-six producers formed the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative.
“Paul could have said, ‘Let’s scrap it.’ Thank goodness he didn’t! Instead, Paul led the charge to get the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative going,” says Wanda.
With funding help and advice from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and several government agencies, member-owners of the turkey co-op purchased the Louis Rich plant and formed West Liberty Foods. West Liberty Foods opened in late 1996 with 425 employees and processed 3.2 million birds during the first year of production.
“There were some lean times. We experienced record low breast meat prices the first two years after forming the co-op,” says Wanda. “Producers had to make substantial financial sacrifices to keep the operation going. We came within 60 days of having to close before everything turned around!”
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Randy and Wanda helped their youngest son built a finisher site. Lucas also raises crops with Randy. Their oldest son, Clint, went into mortgage banking and recruited his sister, Danielle, to join him at Wells Fargo. Since then, Clint has followed his career to Florida while Danielle has moved up the ranks at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Des Moines.
Like her children, Wanda spends her days running numbers. She manages all paperwork, including accounts payable and accounts receivable for three separate turkey sites. She also manages the brooding operation and has a real passion for raising poults.
“I have two full-time employees who help me raise poults from hatch to around 5 weeks, and I’m in the process of hiring a third,” says Wanda. “The turkeys look like chickens with long legs when we move them from our barn to the finishing building. We shoot to go to market at 19.5 weeks.”
Drive and ambition runs in in the family. In addition to raising crops and turkeys, Randy is co-owner of and manages Ellsworth Professional Wash. The self-wash was started in 2008, and the auto-wash (coincidentally) opened just as the bird flu epidemic hit Iowa in 2015. Trucks are driven through the fully automatic wash without having to get out, which is extremely important for bio-security.
The Olson family certainly has lots of work to do, but Wanda says it’s really a shared passion that is key to making it work.
“I know it’s cliché, but they say if you discover your passion you’ll never work a day in your life. The passion has to be there, or you can’t make it in this business,” says Wanda. “We put in more hours than we’re paid for, but that’s farming. If you have livestock, you never really get to walk away. But there’s no place I’d rather be.”