By Margaret Jackson | Apr 04, 2015
Sourcing from family farms, CEO Matt Cook is guiding the turkey titan to annual sales of 100 million pounds -- or 5 million birds.
As the oldest turkey marketing cooperative in the United States, it's not surprising that a bird from Norbest was the first to receive a presidential pardon from the White House Thanksgiving table.
That was in 1947, when President Harry Truman spared the first presidential turkey.
Today, the 85-year-old company is the oldest cooperative organization of its type in the world and one of the top turkey marketing firms in the United States. From its inception, Norbest's goals has been to produce and pack a higher grade of birds and establish a known quality of the product. It's achieved that objective through acquiring turkeys from trusted sources -- members of the cooperative.
"All of our products come from family-owned farms," said Matt Cook, president and chief executive of the company. "There are 42 growers that grow turkeys for the Norbest label."
Norbest distributes its turkeys to 34 states and exports them to 26 countries around the world, including Pacific Rim countries, Mexico, the Caribbean and the Middle East. The company produces about 100 million live pounds of turkey annually -- the equivalent of about 5 million birds each year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates total turkey production the the United States last year was 5.7 billion pounds. The average person in the United States eats about 15.6 pounds of turkey a year.
Over the years, Norbest has provided food to U.S. troops serving at home and abroad. During World War II, turkey was a mainstay for soldiers, and Norbest earned the Armed Forces Meritorious Services Award for Outstanding Performance in supplying the Quartermaster Corps.
After the war, demand for turkey was not as high as the production capacity built to cover wartime needs, so Norbest researchers worked to improve the appeal of turkeys as an everyday menu item. It was the first marketing group to sell fully eviscerated, ready-to-cook turkeys.
Other product lines followed, and today Norbest offers a full line of raw and cooked-further processed products, including bone-in breasts and boneless roasts for both retail and food service; ground turkey; turkey steaks; cooked, roasted and smoked deli breasts; turkey ham; and a range of other products.
"We have great demand for our label," Cook said. "We have some customers who have been buying our product for 50 years, and they want more of it."
Challenges: Growth is a big challenge for Norbest because it requires a lot of capital for infrastructure improvements. "We are greatly restricted by the lack of natural gas infrastructure," Cook said. "There is a tremendous amount of gas used for heat in a turkey building. If you're raising turkeys on heat generated from propane gas, it's twice the cost.
"Then there's just the challenge of raising live animals. We transport our poults from Missouri, Minnesota and California when they're a day old. That has proven to be a challenge. We're transporting poults farther than most processors."
Opportunities: As beef prices have increased, there has been more of a demand for turkey, Cook said. The consumer shift toward healthier foods also has created a demand for options other than beef. "Ground turkey is a big opportunity," Cook said. "It's healthier and less expensive. It's a lot better option, and we see a movement toward that."
Needs: What Norbest needs most are the barns to grow the turkeys. "It's life-production infrastructure," Cook said. "The growers would bear that expense. They would own the buildings, but it's expensive to build a turkey house."