Happy Thanksgiving from Minnesota’s turkey farmers.

Thanksgiving has always been a special holiday for Minnesota’s 450 turkey farmers, but it’s safe to say the holiday has even greater meaning this year as 108 Minnesota poultry farms (104 turkey farms) are getting back to business after being infected by a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (HPAI).

This outbreak was unlike any poultry disease issue we have ever known. It caused financial hardships for many and took a devastating emotional toll on farmers and their families.

Our farmers are rebounding as a testament to their strength of character and their love of raising turkeys. Most farmers affected by avian influenza have restocked their barns with turkeys — or will be doing so soon. That’s why this Thanksgiving, we give thanks for many reasons:

• For the support of our friends, neighbors, family members, local community businesses and emergency resources.

• For the bipartisan support of the Minnesota Legislature and governor.

• For the leadership of the many government agencies and staff members in responding immediately to this disease outbreak, including the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, Department of Natural Resources, State Emergency Operations Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

• For the researchers and staff members at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), Extension, and School of Public Health for their tireless commitment to running diagnostic tests, researching to better understand this virus and assisting farmers in preventing future introductions.

Minnesota’s turkey farmers are also thankful for the investment the Legislature, the University of Minnesota and our farmer predecessors made in research 40-plus years ago that has led to the development of a highly successful program of surveillance, biosecurity and response to this HPAI crisis — and, ultimately, to protecting the health of millions of turkeys, egg-laying hens and broiler chickens.

As we look to the future, agriculture has both challenges and opportunities:

The need for additional workers at a variety of skill levels. According to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the food and agriculture sector needs 58,000 employees each year with four-year degrees or higher and only has 35,500 graduates in those fields. Likewise, there are not enough graduates with two-year or technical degrees in fields of agricultural mechanics, farm management, plant sciences or food technology to meet the needs or of our agricultural sector in Minnesota.

The need for more food for a growing world population. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world population is projected to grow by another 2 billion people, from 7.2 billion currently to 9.4 billion by the year 2050. To meet this projected growth in food needed, we must produce twice as much food in the next 40 years as we currently do. Not only that, but because world incomes are rising, more people will seek to increase protein consumption, including turkey and other meat products. Turkey meat is both high in protein and highly efficient in converting feed to meat so that fewer resources can be used to fill that growing demand for protein from all sources.

Farmers and agriculture companies are up to the challenge. We are already doing more with less. Today’s animal protein (meat, milk, egg) production requires less feed, water, land and energy than ever before (in most cases, less than half) to produce the same amount of protein, all while reducing carbon emissions that are a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

However, we can’t meet these challenges alone. The historical gains in productivity needed are at risk. Over the past 20 years, public and private investment in food and agriculture research has eroded. We must make a commitment to work together with state and federal agencies, universities, food companies, and farmers to support the research and technology needed to maximize our food production, while ensuring clean water, rich soil and healthy animals for future generations.

U.S. farmers and food companies provide the safest, most affordable food supply in the world — and by working together, we will continue to do this in the decades ahead. And for that, we can all give thanks.

 

Steve Olson is executive director, Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.