OAKWOOD — In 1938, Virgil Cooper raised a flock of 500 turkeys for the holidays. Today, Cooper Farms processes more turkeys than that in an hour of a day.
Virgil and Virginia Cooper grew the company until retiring in 1980 and handing over leadership to their children, Jim, Gary and Dianne Cooper. The siblings, this year celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary, have turned the company into the 12th largest turkey processing company in the country.
Cooper today is a leading food supplier, selling a variety of fully cooked and ready-to-cook turkey, ham and chicken. With locations in Oakwood, Fort Recovery, St. Henry and Van Wert, the company employs more than 1,500 people.
Cooper COO Gary Cooper will speak at the Northwest Ohio Ag-Business Breakfast Forum at 8 a.m. Thursday at the Agricultural Incubator Foundation in Bowling Green. The event is sponsored by the Center for Innovative Food Technology.
Cooper will talk about his family’s history in the food production business and also speak on sustainable business practices and innovations. The company now powers its entire Van Wert processing facility, for example, with electricity powered by wind turbine. And it has developed new technology and practices that improve care of turkeys and hogs, along with new processes that improve food safety for consumers.
Cooper said his family company’s success is the result of hard work; some decisions made with a gut rather than a brain; a commitment to employees, animal care and innovation; and choices that put the well-being of the business ahead of personal and family issues.
“Hard work. It’s pretty simply put. It was never about being easy, especially when we first started working for Dad; it was usually seven-day weeks,” Cooper said. “We’re so fortunate that today we have so many people now who have the same passion for their work, commitment and dedication.”
Virgil Cooper was working a regular job and came into the turkey business a bit by accident. His mother had been raising a small flock for “egg money,” Cooper said. When Virgil was a young man, his mother died, and he continued to take care of the turkeys he had helped his mother raise.
Virgil had two choices: the low risk of a job and the high risk of starting a business.
“That’s kind of been our MO. We’ve always had forks in the road, and most of the time our family has never selected the easy choices,” Cooper said. “Even when there was an extreme amount of risk, sometimes my dad, and us, sometimes we just didn’t know better. If we’d taken a more intellectual tact, probably we wouldn’t have made the same choice. We don’t over-analyze. We stick our foot in the water.”
Over the years, Cooper Farms grew and diversified. What started as a simple hatchery has grown to four locations.
The Live Animal Division includes two locations. In the Oakwood area are the turkey and hog breeding farms, as well as the hatchery, which hatches 15 million poults (baby turkeys) a year. In the Fort Recovery area are the nearly 300 family contract farms which grow the turkeys and hogs to market weight and house chickens for table eggs. The Food Processing Division has the processing plant in St. Henry and a cooked meats plant in Van Wert, where deli products are made.
The company is expanding its table egg and egg product business, and also exploring expanding its pre-packaged food products, Cooper said.
In the past, Cooper partnered with another company to take its egg products to market; the company is now in the process of doing that marketing itself and processing other egg products. Also, in the next few years, consumers will see new “value-added” turkey products, such as prepackaged and breaded items.
“It’s one of the last pieces of vertical integration in the company, from farm to table, on the turkey side, that we don’t have yet,” Cooper said. “We don’t have our own distribution center and enough cooler and freezer space. We’ve used contract services for that in three or four other cities for that. We’re evaluating and researching that, and exploring potentially moving everything to one location, most likely the St. Henry plant. That may happen in the next couple of years.”