Deseret News Archivesdeseret News Graphic
Turkeys are grown in the more economically friendly days of 1995 near Moroni, Sanpete County.

The country's economic hardships are driving a major Utah turkey production company to temporarily suspend its operations this winter.

The Moroni Feed Co., an owner of Norbest turkey brand, plans to make sweeping layoffs in December at its various facilities. The layoffs will affect Sevier and Juab counties, but Sanpete County will be hurt most.

Leonard Blackham, commissioner of Agriculture and Food for Utah, explained that production costs have dramatically increased because of the rising cost of corn — a main ingredient in the turkeys' feed. Blackham said many factors account for corn's high cost, including its increased use for producing ethanol, the Midwest flooding and the weaker U.S. dollar.

The weaker dollar has given other countries greater purchasing power to buy U.S. corn, he said.

Floods have destroyed about 12 percent of the crop. Moreover, 20 percent to 25 percent of the corn is made into biofuel, Blackham said. All of this has reduced the supply of corn, leading to an increase in the price to all protein producers.

Some contend that the meat and dairy sector compete with corn-based ethanol production on an uneven playing field. The ethanol producers are given subsidies to purchase the corn at 51 cents a gallon, while the rest buy corn at the high market price. Blackham believes it is appropriate to restructure the country's food-to-fuel policies, eliminating the subsidies altogether and not increasing regulations on agriculture.

"The solutions will not be overnight," Blackham said. "It will take time."

Time is a commodity the employees at Moroni Feed Co. do not have. Blackham said the company "feels sick about it."

"It's our communities, neighbors, friends and oftentimes it's our family members who work here," Blackham said. "There's a very human element. We know each other down here because it's a small-knit community."

Blackham wasn't sure of the numbers, but some reports indicate as many as 675 layoffs will occur.

The commissioner said the company hopes to be back in full swing by March 2009. Since Sanpete County does not have a diverse economy, he said, some people who are unable to sustain themselves with unemployment checks will have to look for jobs along the Wasatch Front.

"It is not unusual for farmers to produce at a loss," Blackham said. "But the high risks and the current projected returns are so negative that we cannot take a chance."

Meanwhile, the company will continue to do business as usual up until Thanksgiving. Blackham said consumers can expect "to have turkey in their freezer for the holidays, including Christmas."

The price for turkey, however, will be affected.

"This Thanksgiving it's not going to be a bargain price as in the past," Blackham said. "But it will still be a good buy."


E-mail: jfrancis@desnews.com