HURON – Jeff Sveen was a young man just out of law school when what has become a decades-long professional association with dozens of Hutterite colonies began.
He’d been recruited by an Aberdeen law firm and returned to his hometown after earning his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Dakota.
One of his new bosses was legislative icon Joe Barnett, a man Sveen had come to know in Pierre.
“I interned for him when he was speaker of the House,” Sveen said.
His first work for a colony involved a case in which a colony truck had run over a neighbor’s dog. After that was settled, he was asked to help another lawyer in dealing with a colony’s financial problems.
That was 1982.
By the 1990s, senior elders of what would grow to be 70 colonies that Sveen now represents began examining their options they could pursue together to help them survive.
The seeds planted at that time would germinate and grow by 2002 into an aggressive plan to build a turkey processing facility, which would in turn be known as Dakota Provisions.
When he was first approached about the idea, Sveen said he thought the elders were crazy.
“This is the big time,” he told them.
But the project came together, with 45 colonies as owners, and Huron came out in front as the host location after Aberdeen and Watertown proposals were also considered.
Sveen said by the time Aberdeen officials realized that the colonies were indeed serious about building their own plant – after believing they had not been treated fairly by companies which were at that time buying their turkeys for processing – Huron’s well organized proposal was too far ahead of the competition.
Open now for about a dozen years, Dakota Provisions east of Huron is now joined by Dakota Provisions West in the city’s West Industrial Park.
“It’s really turned out to be a great deal,” Sveen said.
As DP’s chairman of an 11-member board of directors, he said his role is to serve as liaison between the owners and the management.
Thirty-six years after his initiation into the colony way of life and the ins and outs of raising turkeys, Sveen has worked his way up to the prestigious position as chairman of the board of the National Turkey Federation.
There are no other facilities like Dakota Provisions in the state, so Sveen is the first South Dakotan to be elected national chairman.
One of the perks will come this fall.
“As chairman, I will present the Thanksgiving turkeys to the president,” Sveen said.
Not so they can become the First Family’s holiday meal, of course, but to follow in the annual tradition begun by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to pardon them.
Last November, Sveen was invited to join the Minnesota board chairman at the ceremony.
“He had me come along in the Rose Garden so I could kind of see what was done,” he said.
For this coming November’s event, Riverside Colony north of Huron will probably start off with about 40 turkeys, Sveen said.
“They’re going to have their own little house and then we’ll get them so they’re acclimated to people,” he said.
“Eventually, we’ll get down to two turkeys. We’ll name them. “We’ll have a contest,” Sveen said.
Local and area school children, who obviously won’t observe the pardoning firsthand, will get in on the excitement by being invited to meet the two special turkeys as well as others, he said.
And then Sveen and his feathered friends will make the long drive to Washington, D.C.
What’s the significance of having a South Dakotan as board chairman of the National Turkey Federation?
First off, it takes years to get into a position to fill that role, Sveen said.
He was first elected to the board in 2011, and it’s taken him seven years to work his way up through the ranks to the top.
Not only is it a first that someone from this state is in that position, board members are not accustomed to having a chairman who is a lawyer by profession.
“Most of these people in the turkey industry grew up in the turkey industry and I had to overcome that; that I didn’t grow up in the industry and I’m a lawyer,” Sveen said.
But his national role and the uniqueness and success of Dakota Provisions have put the company and the city of Huron on the map.
“We’re about the 10th or 12th largest turkey company in the U.S.,” Sveen said. “We’re involved in things. We’re innovative. We’re small enough, yet we’re big enough that we can do things.”
Federation leaders often work with Congress on trade and other issues.
“We’re involved in a lot of things worldwide, not just South Dakota,” he said. “It’s fun, it’s educational and it’s interesting and it helps our company grow.”
Trade with other countries – specifically China – is at the forefront with a tariff war threatening the livelihoods of agricultural producers. That includes Dakota Provisions.
Much of the turkey goes to Mexico and the Caribbean, while new markets have opened up in India and New Zealand.
But turkey parts like gizzards and necks will stop going to China.
“But where it hurts is pork,” Sveen said. “A big issue on pork. If pork really does not go over there then they’ll devalue the price of pork, obviously.
“And if pork gets cheaper, then people will eat pork instead of turkey,” he said.