The Cooper family's barn, a classic symbol of Americana, emerges from the early morning mist.

Partners in Pride

Agriculture has nothing to hide here in northwest Ohio’s flat, fertile terrain. In fact, it would be quite out of the ordinary in these close-knit farming communities if families didn’t proudly display their names on their barns.

Perhaps none has become more visible than that of Virgil Cooper, painted on a single red barn in Oakwood, where a small turkey farm turned into a family business that, for 70 years, has been a leader in its industry. Cooper Farms now produces 4.5 million turkeys, 32 million dozen eggs and 100 million pounds of live market hogs per year and is a co-packer with large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Meijer and Kroger. The company employs more than 1,300 people at four corporate locations.

“Some people would believe a company like ours is creating the demise of the small family farmer,” said Cooper Farms Chief Operating Officer Gary Cooper. He and his siblings, Jim and Dianne, now run the company once headed by their father.

In reality it is just the opposite, Cooper said, as Cooper Farms has been fully embraced by the community and the nearly 250 local families it contracts with to produce its livestock and poultry. It’s a partnership that extends well beyond the bottom line.

The key ingredient
“We believe the secret of our success is our people, and they truly make a positive difference in the outcome of our company,” Cooper said. “They are a very key ingredient to our whole system.”

Neil and Gina Boeckman started raising turkeys for Cooper Farms on their Mercer County farm in 1996 and shortly after added hogs to their operation. More than 16,000 turkeys and 5,000 hogs go through the Boeckmans’ barns every year. Neil said contracting with the company was a great way for the family to get into livestock farming; his father and uncles have been with Cooper Farms for years.

Cooper said that small farmers, by agreeing to purchase and raise animals to Cooper’s standards, and in turn, sell them to the company, don’t have to worry about the risk of marketing their product. In doing so they are able to continue on their farms with their families, which is something the Boeckmans appreciate. They said they enjoy the freedom of farming on their own and seeing their three children living in an environment where they are aware of the origin of their food.

A lifelong commitment
“I’ve raised my children in these communities. I want the environment to be as healthy as possible,” Cooper said. “It’s been a long-range plan of ours to continue to improve our stewardship with our environment and our land in everything that we do.”

The Boeckmans are no exception, as they recently received the Ohio Livestock Coalition’s Environmental Stewardship Award for their environmentally sound practices. The award came as a surprise to them, as they said it was for something they do on a daily basis.

“You don’t even really think about it,” Boeckman said. “Being good stewards of the land comes naturally; we strive to do our best every day.” Like all of Cooper’s farmers, the Boeckmans make use of grass filter strips and buffers to prevent erosion and runoff from fields. They also have a composting system to return nutrient rich solids to the environment and have a comprehensive nutrient plan where they annually test soil to gauge where manure should and shouldn’t be applied.

Cooper Farms goes even further by participating in various conservation programs, planting trees as wind breaks to cut down on odors and using mapping technology to determine appropriate manure application.

And as a leader in neighbor relations, Cooper Farms has become more transparent by explaining intentions, how its farms work, giving tours and encouraging farm visits. The company even has a policy prohibiting the spreading of manure on weekends, and producers work to avoid interfering with their neighbors’ upcoming events when possible.

“Once neighbors get to know Cooper Farms and their people, they realize they are reputable and respectable,” Cooper Farms Environmental Manager Bill Knapke said.

It’s always been about family
Knapke said even though farms may grow in size and look a lot different than they did generations ago, it doesn’t mean they’ve turned into large, faceless corporations.

“We have a lot of families producing all our turkeys, hogs and chicken eggs, and some have been growers for over 25 years,” he said. “Their families grow right along with us. Consumers should feel very good about the products they are receiving from our farms.”

“We think we have the ideal situation here,” Cooper said. “We are proud of what we do and we have a passion for it. We are really happy that my dad decided to build here and not somewhere else.”

Even if you haven’t heard of Cooper Farms, chances are good you’ve tasted one of the 4.5 million turkeys that annually come from their producers.

Although it’s not listed on menus, Cooper Farms is the exclusive provider of all the turkey at Bob Evans restaurants, including its new light turkey sausage. “We are really proud that Bob Evans is one of our main customers,” said Gary Cooper, noting that the Ohio-based restaurant was a perfect fit for an Ohio-based turkey producer. Cooper Farms also recently started selling hogs to Bob Evans for sausage.

Cooper Farms’ turkey may also be found under its own name at select Chief’s, Ray’s and Buehler’s local supermarkets. The company also sells to Kroger, Wal-Mart and Meijer as a co-packer under 50 percent of their private labels.