After slide, Utah's Moroni co-op back in the black
Moroni • Moroni Feed Co.'s turkey processing plant is ramping up production after two years of losses, and its Norbest brand has unveiled a line of products for Thanksgiving.
Consumers have the option of a smaller, 2-pound turkey breast, ready to cook in its own bag. And for those who want to grill or broil, Norbest is offering a 2-pound package of turkey fillets, marinated in the savory sauce that Sanpete County made famous.
The Moroni Feed Co. cooperative is counting on the additions as it heads toward a record year expecting to process 100 million pounds of turkey and posting a $4 million profit.
The plant, which processes 5 million turkeys annually, had laid off 500 employees in 2008 and shut down production for three months. Losses bottomed out at $9 million that same year, and in 2009 the plant operated in the red by $4 million.
Losses were blamed on lower consumer demand in the economic downturn and higher feed costs.
"We're much leaner now," said CEO Kent Barton. "We're past the rough times, and we're confident about the future."
The cooperative has closed its hatchery and breeder divisions. Eggs are outsourced to a hatchery in Aurora, Mo., and shipped back to Utah farmers.
Norbest also ended its decades-long relationship with Nebraska farmers so that all turkey production remains with the 55 independent growers in Utah.
In addition, marketing duties formerly performed by Iowa-based West Liberty Foods LLC will be done at corporate offices in Moroni and a sales outlet in Draper.
"The moves have enabled us to be more responsive to our customers," said Barton. "We also can concentrate on efficiencies and cost."
The processing plant in Moroni is back on its year-round schedule. A second facility, in Salina, where smoked turkeys, deli breasts, turkey ham, pastrami and other lunch meats are processed, also has increased production.
Corn prices remain a challenge.
Utah considered a grain-deprived state because of its arid climate is particularly dependent on Midwestern corn for livestock and poultry. About 60 percent of the Moroni plant's feed ingredients is corn.
Nationally, pressure on prices has come from ethanol that gobbles up nearly one-third of the U.S. corn stocks. Worse, this year's lower-than-expected crop means that the country's stocks will drop to a precarious 900 million bushels, the lowest in 14 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To help negotiate prices on corn, the cooperative has an unloading facility in Levan with two silos that together can take up to 20 train-car loads of feed at a time, allowing it to buy in volume.
The cooperative also is looking to expand its Utah market, which accounts for only 7 percent of its sales. In a state where Norbest has had a presence since 1933, farmers are concerned that Utahns are unaware of their homegrown products.
The Utah's Own program that promotes products made or manufactured here is contacting grocery stores, asking them to highlight Utah foods such as Norbest.
In addition, samples of Norbest's new offerings have been handed out at tailgating parties at University of Utah football games, and a booth has been set up at Brigham Young University where fans can buy smoked drumsticks, similar to those sold at amusement parks, and marinated turkey sandwiches.
For the diehard fans of the brand, the marinated fillets are what's known as Sanpete barbecue turkey.
Jodi Christensen, who works at the Sanpete Conoco lunch counter, constantly explains to out-of-towners that the fillets don't contain barbecue sauce. The meat is marinated, then grilled.
Children in Sanpete County have grown up eating turkey marinated with lemon-lime soda, soy sauce, garlic and horseradish. "People love the sandwiches," said Christensen. "All they have to do is taste one."
Norbest, long known for its whole turkeys and deli items, has unveiled a smaller, 2-pound turkey breast, ready to cook in its own bag, and marinated turkey fillets, which can be cooked in 10 minutes on the grill or broiler. The products are stocked at Harmons, Dan's, Lin's, Ream's, Macey's, Fresh Market and most markets affiliated with Associated Food Stores.