Jennie-O 2011 Farm of the Year a continuation of family turkey tradition

John Gessell is pictured next to photos of (from top): his grandfather, Joe, a Butterball partner; his father, John Gessell, Sr., who raised turkeys for Butterball and then Jennie-O; and John. His daughter, Samantha, and her fiance, Jon Paul Cofell, are the fourth generation to produce turkeys.

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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John Gessell knew something was up when he got a call the day before the Jennie-O annual grower/partner meeting in April asking for the names of his employees. “That had never happened before,” said Gessell, but he still didn’t know why.

He was surprised to be given the Jennie-O Turkey Store 2011 Farm of the Year award for outstanding light hen performance.

But Gessell feels the award belongs to many others in addition to himself, who contribute equally to what 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.

With much of his former help grown up and busy, Gessell has hired two trustworthy employees he can rely on completely — Darren Jacobs, Little Falls High School student, 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 raised 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. He now has two starter barns and two finishing barns.

“Our farm produces over 5 million pounds of turkey per year,” he said. “There are many 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.

The chaseover crew plays a big part of the turkey operation, moving the turkeys from the starter barn to the big barn. they include Charlotte Thieschafer, Mike Barthel, Jeff Baum, Kay Wolbeck and Jami Warner.

Another vital contributor is 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.”

Biosecurity measures are a high priority. Entrance to the farm buildings is strictly limited to employees. This controls many problems, including diseases or pests.

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

Gessell considers his operation to be a family farm. “I’ve worked with turkeys all my life, and have continuously put out a good product. I’m proud of what I do,” he said. “There are 7 billion people in the world, and they all need to be fed.”

Often, one of the most enjoyable parts of his day is the morning roundtable at Granny’s Café in Swanville. Granny’s, which is named after Gessell’s grandma, Elizabeth Gessell, hosts area farmers, business people and anyone who wanders 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 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 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 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.