Jennie-O 2011 Farm of the Year, Thirteen Acres, a continuation of family turkey producing tradition

Turkey producer gives back to the community by giving blood

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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John Gessell of Gessell Thirteen Acres farm, a Jennie-O partner turkey producer, was selected as Jennie-O Turkey Store 2011 Farm of the Year. He is pictured next to photos of (from top) his grandfather, Joe, who raised turkeys for Butterball; his father, John Gessell, Sr., who raised turkeys first for Butterball, and then for Jennie-O; and John himself, who partners with Jennie-O. His daughter, Samantha, and her fiancé, Jon Paul Cofell, who will be married in November, are the fourth generation to produce turkeys.

John Gessell knew something out of the ordinary was happening when he received a phone call the day before the Jennie-O annual grower/partner meeting, April 13, asking for the names of his employees. “That had never happened before,” said Gessell, but he still didn’t know why.

At the meeting, he was surprised at being given the Jennie-O Turkey Store 2011 Farm of the Year award for outstanding light hen performance.

But Gessell feels the award belongs to so many other people in addition to himself, people who contribute equally to all that happens on his farm.

His wife, Lynette, has always supported him, and his children — daughter Samantha, daughter Marissa and son Austin — have always been a big help with brooding, poult placement and everyday farm chores.

Gessell’s daughter, Samantha will be married in November to Jon Paul Cofell. They are already helping with the turkey operation on the Gessell farm, and will have two turkey buildings on their own place, Badger Creek Farm near Swanville.

Daughter Marissa is busy raising a hardy breed of beef cattle, an Angus/Hereford mix. Her fiancé, Nick Murphy, arrived home from Kuwait in April, and they will be married in June, 2013.

Son Austin is now attending college at St. Scholastica and is not home for a lot of the turkey-raising chores.

When the turkey process is running at full capacity, there are 120,000 birds to care for. Gessell also raises soybeans and hay. With much of his former help grown up and busy with other things, Gessell has hired two trustworthy employees and has found he can rely on them completely – Darren Jacobs, a student at Little Falls Community High School, and soon-to-be son-in-law, Jon Paul Cofell.

Gessell’s roots in the turkey industry go deep. His grandfather, Joe Gessell, started the Swanville Feed Mill. “He helped a lot of area people get started in the turkey industry in about the late 1940s,” said Gessell.

Gessell’s father John Gessell, Sr. continued the tradition by raising turkeys first for Swift-Butterball, and then for Jennie-O.

“I’ve been with turkeys all my life,” said Gessell. He bought Gessell Thirteen Acres between Swanville and Flensburg in 1988, and built the new turkey barns in 1996.

“Our farm produces over five million pounds of turkey per year,” he said. “There are many industries and local businesses that support our farm, and we want them to know how much we appreciate what they do.” These include the lumberyard, hardware store, electricians, plumbers, well-drillers and tractor repairmen. “We call on them a lot,” said Gessell.

There is a group of people that plays a big part of the turkey operation, the chaseover crew. They move the turkeys from the starter barn to the big barn, and have been working with the Gessells for many years: Charlotte Thieschafer, Mike Barthel, Jeff Baum, Kay Wolbeck and Jami Warner.

Another vital contribution is made to Gessell’s operation by Jennie-O feed truck driver, John Poegel. “He is very thoughtful, and has even called me in the middle of the night when he saw something wrong,” Gessell said. “Little things like that could turn out to be big things, if they’re not caught.”

Gessell’s farm raises about 360,000 poults per year. When the birds get close to market size, they consume 144 tons of feed per week.

Biosecurity measures are a high priority for Gessell. Entrance to the farm buildings is strictly limited to employees. This controls the introduction of any kind of problem, including diseases or pests.

Jennie-O’s trucks are equipped with cameras, which also helps maintain the integrity of the turkey operation.

Gessell considers his operation to be a family farm. “I’ve been working with turkeys my whole life, and have continuously put out a good product. “I’m very proud of what I do,” he said, “there are seven billion people in the world, and they all need to be fed.”

“He has good ‘turkey sense,’” said his wife, Lynette.

“What is most satisfying is successfully helping my family, getting the kids through college and ready for their future,” said Gessell.

“I usually like being my own boss,” he said, “and helping other people benefit from my work, helping out the neighbors. My business helps the local economy.”

Often, one of the most enjoyable parts of Gessell’s day is the morning roundtable at Granny’s Café in Swanville. Granny’s, which is named after Gessell’s own grandma, Elizabeth Gessell, hosts area farmers, business people and anyone who cares to wander in. Room is made for everyone at the table.

Discussions cover the economy, religion and politics. “We take care of everything while we are there,” said Gessell, chuckling.

Gessell stays connected to the local community and serves his neighbors as a Flensburg volunteer fireman and as a member of the Swanville Lions.

One of the biggest ways Gessell has been able to help people is by giving blood. He has now donated 14 gallons of blood since he turned 18, usually at St. Francis Hall in Little Falls.

“My parents gave blood, and they encouraged me to do it too,” he said. “I was 18 when I started giving. I was told that for every pint that is donated, three lives are saved.”

Gessell is blood type O negative, which means he is a universal donor. Just a couple years after he started donating, he received a phone call in the middle of the night from St. Gabriel’s Hospital, asking him to give blood for a little girl who had been in an accident.

“I asked when I should come in, and was told, ‘right now,’” he said. “So I threw on my clothes and went right in.”

As pleased as Gessell has been with what he has been able to accomplish in his life, he wants to emphasize that he hasn’t done it alone. “I’m most proud of the people who surround me, who support us every day,” he said.

In 20 more years, Gessell’s daughter and son-in-law will likely have control of the farm, and his son will probably be involved as well. Gessell considers that he will come out and do what he can. “There will be a Bobcat ready for me to do the cleaning,” he said with a smile.