“Talking Turkey” with the Hermanson Family

By Ann Thelen

The average person is now three generations removed from the farm. However, many grown children are proudly choosing to return home to farm with their families. Nick and Katie Hermanson are one of those couples. They are the fifth generation to be living and working on their Story City farm and joyfully profess that farming is in their blood. With a passion for sustainability, education and preserving a farming legacy, it’s a way of life they wanted to carry on for their young family.

Katie and Nick Hermanson with their children Lucille, 2; Charlotte, 5; Gavin, 7. The Hermansons are fifth generation farmers who live in Story City. Photo credit: Iowa State Fair

Katie and Nick Hermanson with their children Lucille, 2; Charlotte, 5; Gavin, 7. The Hermansons are fifth generation farmers who live in Story City. Photo credit: Iowa State Fair

“Although the farm started in 1871, my family has been raising toms – male turkeys – since the 1940s. We also grow soybeans and corn, the bulk of which are used right on the farm for high-quality, nutritious feed,” Nick explains. “Up until 1999, dairy was the largest part of our operation. We made the tough decision to exit the dairy business and ramp up turkey production.”

It wasn’t a decision the family made lightly. Dairy prices were low at the time, and their facilities were aging. The most modern part of the operation was built in the 1950s, and their location still placed them within the city limits of Story City. With nearly 1,000 dairy cows, they needed more expansive and modern facilities. Working on a dairy is hard labor and finding adequate help had also become increasingly difficult.

A quick glimpse back in time shows how the Hermanson family made Story City home is an interesting one. Family folklore is that Nick’s great-great-grandparents were planning to continue moving southwest to Kansas in the 1870s but settled in Story City after Scarlet Fever affected some of the children.

Today, the family farm operations rest with Nick, 35, and Katie, 34, along with Nick’s dad, Al; cousin Mike; and Mike’s son-in-law, Chris Royer.

“We solely raise male turkeys – approximately 250,000 to 300,000 annually – which are grown for the breast meat. That’s true of nearly all of Iowa’s 130 turkey farms. Most of the meat is cut into deli-style slices. Because the males grow so much larger – generally 42-45 pounds – nearly all the whole turkeys found in grocery stores are hens (female turkeys),” Nick says.

The family’s turkeys are processed at West Liberty Foods, which was formed in 1996 when 47 Iowa farmers joined together to form the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative. The Hermansons were founding members of West Liberty Foods, and as partial owners, they have been sending their turkeys to this location for more than two decades.

Carrying on Iowa’s rich farming tradition, these farmers are committed to animal health and welfare while delivering superior-quality turkeys — a philosophy that has helped family farms grow and thrive for generations. Many people may not realize that Iowa’s turkey farmers are the No. 1 supplier of turkey to Subway and Jimmy John’s!

Vigilant About Animal Care

Although he’s helping continue his family’s legacy on this nearly 150-year-old farm, Nick was the first family member in three decades to return to the operation. But first, he graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in agronomy and ag systems technology.

“I always knew I wanted to come back, and it was a great opportunity to do so,” Nick says. “We’ve always been passionate about doing everything we can for the turkeys and care is at the top of the list.”

On the farm, all turkeys are kept indoors for two key reasons – environmental factors and biosecurity – both of which directly correlate to the welfare and comfort of the turkeys.

By raising the turkeys inside, the environment is controlled, keeping them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Technological advancements allow big fans to circulate air and computer controls carefully keep everything at an optimal temperature.

“Biosecurity is vital,” Nick explains. “It’s our job to protect the turkeys from disease and predators. For example, wild geese may not be susceptible to certain avian viruses but can be a carrier and transmit them to a healthy flock.”

Visitors to the farm are limited and only allowed if they have a reason to be there, such as veterinarians and nutritionists. All visitors and people working on the farm, including the Hermansons follow strict biosecurity protocols. The restrictions including being away from livestock a safe amount of time, putting on coveralls, disinfecting boots and a lengthy list of additional practices to protect the turkeys.

Sustainability in Action

Nick and Katie were 2018 recipients of the Iowa State Fair’s “The Way We Live” award sponsored by Pioneer, Iowa Farmer Today and the WHO BIG show. Presented during the Iowa State Fair, the award recognizes Iowa farm families who have demonstrated their dedication to agriculture and strong Iowa farm values. In an essay to the judges, a nominator wrote: The Hermanson Family has a strong dedication to working with the land and protecting the environment.

Part of protecting the environment is a well-thought-out and measured approach to protecting the rich and fertile soil.

“The nutrient cycle on the farm is fascinating and always comes full circle. We take turkey manure and spread it on the fields in the fall as fertilizer,” Nick says. “In turn, the turkey fertilizer helps us to grow high-quality soybeans and corn. Our feed rations contain about 75 percent soybeans and corn, so those crops are helping to grow turkeys.”

The Hermansons actively strip-till, meaning only about one-third of the field is tilled. The rest of the soil isn’t moved by machinery. Manure is applied in 10-inch wide strips down each row. In the spring, they plant directing into that nutrient-rich soil. Not only does it enhance the natural nutrients absorbed by the plant, but it also reduces soil loss through weather erosion. Cover crops planted in the fall supplement the sustainability efforts.

Farm-to-Classroom Connections

Katie also grew up in Story City. While she wasn’t raised on a farm, both sets of her grandparents were. She graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul with a degree in history and taught at Roland Story High school for 5 years. Recently, Katie returned to the farm full time, where the couple raises their children, Gavin, 7; Charlotte, 5; and Lucille, 2. As the Ag in the Classroom director for Story County, she’s able to maintain her love of sharing learning opportunities with students.

Nick and Katie were 2018 recipients of the Iowa State Fair’s “The Way We Live” award sponsored by Pioneer, Iowa Farmer Today and the WHO BIG show. Presented during the Iowa State Fair, the award recognizes Iowa farm families who have demonstrated their dedication to agriculture and strong Iowa farm values. Photo credit: Iowa State Fair

Nick and Katie were 2018 recipients of the Iowa State Fair’s “The Way We Live” award sponsored by Pioneer, Iowa Farmer Today and the WHO BIG show. Presented during the Iowa State Fair, the award recognizes Iowa farm families who have demonstrated their dedication to agriculture and strong Iowa farm values. Photo credit: Iowa State Fair

“Through Skype and having an iPad in the barns, we can take our farm to the kids,” she says. “Kids and teachers are always amazed at how much technology goes into livestock production. I can then do a follow-up lesson with them in the classroom. It’s a wonderful way to expose kids to farm life.”

Nick adds geography isn’t an issue if there is an internet connection. In fact, the couple has had farm visitors – who never had to leave their zip code – from as far away as Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

“Agriculture is continuously changing. We love being able to share that message and share the technology, care and commitment that goes into modern agriculture,” Katie says. “As farmers, we have to be just as comfortable putting on our work boots as putting on a business suit and sharing our story with legislators.”