ST. PAUL, Minnesota — One bird may have been the star Monday, but Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota turkey producers held the flapping 40-pounder out as a tribute to an important agriculture sector in the midst of a rebound.
The annual event where Minnesota's governor pets a live turkey ultimately bound for an area food shelf doubled as a means to highlight to an industry recovering from a devastating bout with avian flu. This spring's outbreak and response efforts cost producers in the nation's top turkey growing state hundreds of millions of dollars and 5.5 million birds — about 10 percent of the number typically raised annually.
"It's been a challenging year for turkey growers in Minnesota," Dayton said. "But they are back in full force."
Turkey producers say their supplies are stable heading into this Thanksgiving and their product is safe. Of the 104 affected turkey farms, state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said 99 are in some stage of restocking their flocks.
"Thanksgiving has always been a special holiday for Minnesota turkey farmers, but it's safe to say this year this holiday has an even greater meaning," said Robert Orsten, a breeder from Willmar who is president of the Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council.
Steve Olson, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association executive director, said the avian flu was eradicated from the last flock in early June. Producers and agriculture officials are on alert for a potential recurrence but have taken steps to limit exposure, including more testing and more restrictions in bird barns.
"By the beginning of next year, knock on wood, we will be full production and hope we don't have to deal with this again," Olson said. "We hope this is a one and done."
Frederickson said Minnesota's aggressive response — aided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has made it a model for dealing with bird flu. Officials from other states, including Massachusetts, have sought advice on how to prepare and respond.
"We did it right and we are prepared in the unlikely event and hope it doesn't happen again," Frederickson said. "But if we have to deal with this, we are ready to deal with it."
Dayton dubbed the 18-week-old turkey at his event "Aaron" after Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who led his team past the home-state Minnesota Vikings a day earlier.
After joking that he hopes Rodgers meets the same fate as the bird, Dayton quickly clarified his remarks. "For the record, I wish Aaron Rodgers no ill will, just more incomplete passes next time," the Democratic governor said.