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Turkey pioneer started small

Published on 5 August, 2006, Last updated at 07:58 GMT

By Nick Ferraro

George Thurnbeck, one of Minnesota's first commercial turkey growers, died July 27 at his Forest Lake home. He was 94.

In 1931, Thurnbeck and his brother Clem bought eight hens and one tom from an area farmer and began a turkey-growing operation on the family's 700-acre farm in Columbus Township.

"They had survived with general farming - potatoes, cows, pigs, a little bit of everything," said George Thurnbeck's son, Darrell. "But this was something new to them and most farmers around here."

George Thurnbeck was a pioneer in the state's turkey industry, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, which was founded in 1939.

"I'm asked a lot why we're number one," said Olson, referring to Minnesota topping the nation in turkey production. "One of the reasons is the strong infrastructure, and part of that is the University of Minnesota and the research they've done to help us address disease and nutrition and things of that nature. Another part is our long history of people who know how to grow turkeys. And George was one of those people."

The Thurnbeck brothers grew their flock by collecting eggs and placing them under a chicken incubator to hatch. As they discovered the potential in turkey growing as a commercial venture, it became their full-time business.

By the 1940s, Thurnbeck Farms was one of the first growers in the state that had become fully integrated, Darrell Thurnbeck said. "They had their reproductive stock, hatchery, feed mill and growing facility," he said. "They did all the processing and marketed them."

The Thurnbeck brothers sold their turkeys to markets in the Twin Cities both live and "New York dressed," a process in which the feathers are removed but the head and feet are left intact.

Two other Thurnbeck brothers, Frank and Larry, also got into the business and ran farms in nearby New Scandia Township and Wyoming.

By the 1950s, Thurnbeck Farms became too large for the brothers to handle alone, Darrell Thurnbeck said. So they started a co-op with other turkey growers and began specializing in breeder stock, he said.

Olson credits George and Clem Thurnbeck with developing one of the earliest watering systems for turkeys as well as a portable shed for brooding that protected the birds in winter.

"They also worked closely with the University of Minnesota to develop its research capability," Olson said.

Darrell Thurnbeck began taking over the turkey operation in 1970, the year Clem Thurnbeck died. George Thurnbeck retired about five years later, his son said. Thurnbeck Farms now raises about 150,000 turkeys a year.

George Thurnbeck also was among a handful of area residents who founded Forest Hills Golf Club in Forest Lake in the late 1950s, and he played golf three times a week until a year ago.

"He got a hole in one when he was 87," his son said.

Services were Friday at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Forest Lake.

In addition to his son, Darrell, George Thurnbeck is survived by his daughter, Diane Rueb, of Forest Lake; eight grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren; and sisters Betty Vanselow of Little Falls and Mary Charpentier of Oak Park Heights.


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