Melrose–Pete Rothfork figures he was around 11 years old when he walked into a turkey barn for the first time.

Fast forward 50 years and Pete is still working in—and promoting—the turkey industry for what has become a family business that started with his dad, Harold. Pete and wife Patti’s only child, daughter Jessica Westbrock, is the third generation Rothfork to work in the business, with a potential fourth generation on the horizon. 

“Blessed. To have one daughter and have her interested in agriculture is cool,” Rothfork said Wednesday afternoon sitting behind his Melrose Feed Mill office desk in Melrose, with his daughter at her desk on the phone, just a stone’s throw from a street fittingly called Turkey Lane. 

For Rothfork’s dedication to the turkey industry, he was surprised with the Ranelius Award during the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA) summer conference June 27 in Brainerd. 

“The Ranelius Award is the highest honor given by the MTGA,” said MTGA President Paul Kvistad, a turkey farmer from Wood Lake, Minn. “It signifies leadership and dedication to the industry based on contributions made to enhance Minnesota’s turkey industry. Pete Rothfork is more than deserving of this special honor.” 

The Ranelius Award is named for Sven Ranelius, a founding father of the MTGA, often described as a quiet, unselfish person who was very dedicated to the turkey industry in Minnesota. Nominees are evaluated on two central criteria: their contribution to the industry over a period of time; and the quality of that contribution. 

 “It’s a great honor to present the Ranelius Award to Pete Rothfork,” said Kvistad. “We thank him for his dedication and passion to our state turkey industry.”

The MTGA and Minnesota Turkey Research & Promotion Council (MTRPC) also honored Kim Halvorson, a turkey grower from Morristown, Minn., with its 2019 Turkey Promoter of the Year Award and Gregg Veldman, Senior Business Manager at Evonik Corporation from Becker, Minn., with the 2019 Allied Lifetime Achievement Award. 

The Rothfork connection to the turkey industry began in 1964 when Harold Rothfork started raising turkeys. Five years before, in 1959, Harold Rothfork and Frank Maleska partnered up to start the Melrose Feed Mill. Pete Rothfork became involved in 1970, while still in high school. 

Rothfork said his dad and Maleska built up the business through the ‘70s and ’80. Rothfork, at the time owned a car dealership and when the opportunity arose for him to buy into the turkey business, he did. In 1988 he started working full time at the feed mill, eventually buying into the mill and the turkey barns.                         

It didn’t take him long to discover the camaraderie within the turkey industry. 

“Turkey farmers are unique in that we don’t look at each other as competition. We look at each other as friends,” said Rothfork, adding “I had a fire a few years ago at the mill and there were Leon and Rick (Klaphake—other turkey farmers) in a truck. They wanted to help. A friend lost some of his barns up north and we sent workers there to help.” 

He added, “It’s a friendly, honest business.”

A people person with a flair for fun, Rothfork enjoys the people he meets in the industry—and, of course, he has a fondness for turkeys. 

Today, at age 62, Rothfork works part time, kiddingly saying, “I do all the parts Jessica doesn’t want to do.”

 There’s no way he could quit cold turkey. The turkey business is in his blood so he has to ease his way out.  

Following in the footsteps of her dad, Westbrock manages the feed mill and runs the live turkey production, and her husband, Andy, manages a couple of the farms. 

“It’s a good feeling,” Rothfork said of their daughter taking over the business, adding that it happened by accident. 

“One day Frank and Audrey (Spengler-office manager) were both gone and Jessica came in to help answer phones. By two o’clock we decided she was going to quit her job and come here,” said Rothfork.

That was seven years ago, and now the Westbrocks, like Jessica’s parents, are buying into the business, which raises one million tom turkeys annually. They manage 42 turkey barns at eight farms and employ 35 people full time, many for more than 30 years.  

“We are a family business. The turkeys are really raised by families, farm managers and their wives who work on the farms. No way could we do that without them. They are more like family,” said Rothfork, adding, “I’m very proud” of that.   

He serves as president and chief executive officer of the Melrose Feed Mill, Inc., which manufactures 50,000 tons of feed annually. 

Rothfork is well respected among his peers and served as the MTGA & MTRPC president from 1997 to 1998 in addition to serving as past chairman of the National Turkey Federation in 2005.

“Pete embodies servant leadership with a firm but steady hand and leads by example,” said Lara Durben, interim executive director, who calls Rothfork a pretty awesome mentor.  “He encourages new members to get involved with our associations and understands the value of transparent relationships with stakeholders when working toward a common goal.”

She said Rothfork has “shaped modern turkey farming. She has learned a lot about the turkey industry from him.   

Rothfork enjoys opportunities to share information about the turkey business. He loves connecting children with the turkey industry, showing them where their food comes from. 

Patti Rothfork is also involved in the turkey industry. In 2005, she was a turkey diva, at times wearing an apron, boa and tiara traveling around the state promoting turkeys.  

To say Rothfork was surprised with the Ranelius Award is an understatement. After all, to him he’s just doing something he loves to do--promoting and working with turkeys. 

A fourth generation of Rothforks, Pete and Patti’s grandson, Peyton, now works in the family business, dropping a hint that he may continue to do so after he graduates from college. 

That makes Rothfork happy--and proud--knowing a turkey business his dad started 50 years ago will continue into the future.