Minnesota poultry farmers are a driving force to the state's rural economy.

According to an analysis released last month by University of Minnesota Extension researchers, the average turkey farm supports six jobs in Minnesota.

"We found that the average turkey farm in Minnesota generates $2.3 million in economic activity,” said Brigid Tuck, senior economic impact analyst with the University of Minnesota Extension.

The analysis, which detailed the "vulnerabilities of poultry to swings created by COVID-19," showed that Kandiyohi, Stearns and Morrison counties lead the state in turkey production. Minnesota has around 600 turkey farms currently and is the top producer of turkey in the country.

According to the Extension report, around half of those 600 farms are independent and the other half are owned and operated with a major processor.

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There were 40 million turkeys produced by Minnesota farmers in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 64 million broiler chickens and 3.2 billion eggs produced by laying hens. Turkey, chickens and eggs combined in 2019 contributed a total of $995 million in sales to Minnesota’s economy.

The livestock analyses are something new the Extension researchers are doing this year to examine the impact from COVID-19 on industries.

"This is something that when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, we were really interested in understanding what this means for our livestock sectors," Tuck said. "It seemed like there was an opportunity here to kind of help the general public understand what was going on."

Tuck said she and her co-authors hope the report "encourages Minnesotans and consumers to step back and think about the way our food is provided".

"To really understand how the agricultural industry works," she said. "We think of it as one block, but it is very different depending on what sector you're in and what product you're producing."

Tuck said the first thing that stuck out for her in the poultry analysis was "just how varied Minnesota's poultry industry is."

"We automatically think about turkeys," said Tuck, which account for over 60% of poultry sales in the state.

But the poultry industry also includes chickens, eggs and backyard flocks.

"Only about 50% of our farms that reported having inventory are doing so commercially," Tuck said. "So we have a lot of farms with a few chickens in the yard or a couple laying hens for the fun of it."

COVID-19 impact

The analysis states that the financial impact from COVID-19 on poultry producers varied depending on the type of farm, "with turkey farms generally faring better than chicken or egg producers."

While turkey producers weren't upended by COVID-19 shutdowns, other poultry producers were hit hard. And the impact wasn't spread evenly, even for producers of the same product.

"Egg producers who were producing eggs for restaurant use plummeted, while demand for eggs in the grocery store quadrupled overnight," Tuck said.

"Turkey really glided through this relatively unaffected," Tuck said of the pandemic.

Minnesota is the top turkey producing state in the United States, according to USDA statistics, and Tuck said she doesn't think COVID-19 will change that. She said that has a lot to do with turkey markets.

"When you think about where does most turkey get sold, it's to delis, which didn't necessarily see as much of an impact as some other types of establishments did," she said.

She said school lunches are also a big market for turkey producers, and school lunches continued to be served throughout the pandemic.

"(Turkey) markets were a little more stable, and processing capacity allowed a little more flexibility during the pandemic," she said.

But she said some of the markets that turkey producers depend on, like summer festivals and county fairs, are not happening this year, and Extension researchers think those producers need to get creative to fill those gaps in business.

"You won't get your turkey leg that you may have had at the renaissance festival this year," Tuck said. "So we're encouraging people to try (finding new markets) at home, and check out food trucks and those sort of things."

She said the loss in regular summer business for turkey producers is the "piece that remains to be seen".