Farmer Saves Iowa Turkey Industry

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 18, 2001

Paul Hill raises turkeys for a living, but his special talent lies in his ability to motivate and organize other people. Over the years, Hill, whose family raises 700,000 birds annually on a farm near Ellsworth, Iowa, (pop. 531) has learned that you never get something for nothing.

“You receive and you give,” says Hill, 55. “You’re always receiving, and you should always be giving.”

In 1996, Hill spearheaded an effort to save Iowa’s turkey industry. When he and other Iowa turkey producers learned that the Louis Rich turkey processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa, (pop. 3,332) was going to be closed, they knew something had to be done.

After exploring ways to keep the plant open, 46 producers formed a cooperative, and with funding help and advice from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and several government agencies, they purchased the plant where more than 65 percent of the turkeys raised in Iowa were processed.

West Liberty Foods opened in late 1996 with 425 employees and processed 3.2 million birds during the first year of production. In 2000, employment increased to 1,025 workers, 4.5 million birds were processed, and the cooperative purchased another turkey plant in Sigourney, Iowa (pop. 2,209).

“We had a very talented and diverse group of turkey producers,” says Hill, now chairman of the co-op’s board of directors. “We drew on everyone’s skills and experience.”

“Paul is very inspirational and enthusiastic,” says Randy Olson, a fellow turkey producer and co-op member. “When he spoke to state government officials, he represented us very well. His personality and his enthusiasm are both huge.”

Hill’s contributions have helped more than Iowa turkey producers, however. For decades, he’s been an organizer and motivator in his hometown.

At Trinity Lutheran Church in Ellsworth, Hill has enthusiastically taught a Sunday school class attended by teenagers for 33 years. “There are very few Sundays I don’t come home pumped higher than a kite,” Hill says.

“Paul was probably the most effective teacher I ever had in Sunday school,” Jared Hovick says. “When you’re a teenager, Sunday school is the last place you want to be, but I never wanted to miss that class.

“He didn’t just read the lesson to us,” remembers Hovick, now 21 and a student at the University of Iowa. “He found an experience in his life to relate to everything.”

In 1980, Hill and his wife, Mary, helped establish an annual youth basketball tournament. After 12 years of organizing games for up to 100 teams from central Iowa, the Hills—who have three grown children of their own—turned the reins over to other volunteers. Profits from the tournament, which is still growing, go to South Hamilton Community School in nearby Jewell.

“Our booster club runs the tournament now and gives about $7,000 to the athletic department every year,” says Todd Coy, the school’s athletic director. “That makes a big difference in terms of uniforms and equipment.”

Hill didn’t realize it at the time, but his work organizing those early basketball tournaments prepared him to mobilize turkey producers years later. He says both experiences were an opportunity to evaluate people, find their strengths, and motivate them to reach a common goal.

“So many people have talent that they don’t really realize,” Hill says. “The exciting part is to bring that talent out.

“I believe that one person makes a difference,” he adds. “When every person decides to contribute, it takes things to another level.”