On a blustery November morning, Eric Hoiland drives his combine down a hillside along the banks of the Root River. The 38-year-old farmer wears mud-caked jeans and a faded denim jacket. Tufts of red hair peek out from under a charcoal winter hat. His pink, wind-creased face and severely chapped lips testify to a life spent outdoors.
Hoiland steers the massive farm vehicle across a bike path and into a field of corn. In some patches, the stalks lie nearly flat on the ground. Logs and branches litter the earth. The dirt is moist, and the combine threatens to get stuck. "Start praying," he says as he backs gingerly out of the mud.
Since 1998, the bachelor farmer has raised free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys on a plot of land just south of Rush Creek. Starting with a flock of just 75 birds, the operation filled a niche serving Twin Cities restaurants and co-ops that emphasize locally grown ingredients.
"I was expecting to have a real breakout year the way things were shaping up," he says.
But in mid-August, Hoiland's turkey farm was swallowed by floodwaters. Just one week before the annual harvesting season was to begin, every single one of his 1,500 birds drowned. The cattle faired only marginally better—just 5 of the 29 cows survived. The house he shares with his 79-year-old mom was rendered uninhabitable. The water destroyed many cherished possessions, from family photos to a baby grand piano.
Rushford was the epicenter of the flooding that devastated southeastern Minnesota three months ago. Scars are everywhere on the town's streets. On some blocks, half a dozen houses have been demolished. Many surviving homes are plastered with red signs indicating structural deficiencies.
The Hoiland family has been raising turkeys here since the 1930s. But as the poultry business became increasingly dominated by a handful of massive corporations—most notably Austin-based Hormel—the economics no longer made sense.
By the time Eric Hoiland, the youngest of seven siblings, returned to Rushford with a graduate degree in crop physiology from Iowa State University, the family had largely abandoned the turkey business. But with the market for organic and locally grown foods on the rise, Hoiland decided to give it another go. He dubbed the fledgling operation Hoiland Mill Farm, in honor of a 19th-century grain mill that sits on the property abutting his farmland. "I came home without a dime and started farming from scratch," he says.
Over the ensuing decade, Hoiland developed a devoted following among local chefs. Renowned Twin Cities restaurants such as Corner Table, Muffuletta, and Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar regularly served his poultry. "When you tasted his turkey, you could tell he was doing a lot of things correct because of the flavor of these birds," says Scott Pampuch, chef at Corner Table. "Over and over the comments are, 'I was a little skeptical of ordering turkey in a restaurant, but that was amazing.'"
Evidence of the flood's destruction is written all over Hoiland's land. A table turned on its side has been spray-painted with the words "dead end" to ward off disaster tourists. A gazebo freed from its moorings by the storm now leans precariously next to Hoiland's house. One of his feed tanks was spotted floating in the Mississippi River south of Lacrosse, Wisconsin—some 40 miles away.
A blue trailer holds the household belongings that were salvageable. In the driveway sits a camper that he and his mother lived in for more than a month while awaiting a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hoiland's front yard is covered with sand from the river bottom. "This was all grass," he says, digging a plastic toy out of the soggy ground. "This was our yard."
After the floodwaters receded, Hoiland returned to his farm to survey the damage. Passing by a small cemetery where his father is buried, he came upon the five surviving head of cattle. "They were lying next to my dad's tombstone," Hoiland recalls. "They kind of stood up and looked at us. 'Where'd you guys come from?'"
Hoiland's two turkey coops revealed an apocalyptic scene: piles of turkey corpses, rapidly rotting in the August heat. The smell of sun-baked flesh was nauseating. "Some of them floated away, but most of them perished right here," says Hoiland. "It was kind of a disturbing mess."
The turkey carcasses now lie in a heap at the northern edge of his property. The birds were insured, but the policy didn't include flood coverage. He's uncertain if he'll resume turkey farming. "Right now I couldn't tell you," he says. "I can't even think about it."
The house is being rebuilt primarily with the help of a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. He's received $10,000 in grants from the Sow the Seeds Fund, a Twin Cities-based organization that's been providing assistance to flood-ravaged farmers.
Any future turkey plans will be complicated by the fact that the factory that processed Hoiland's birds is shutting down. Barring a last-minute buyer, Burt's Hilltop Poultry is closing at the end of the month.
Hoiland has contemplated expanding his modest beef cattle herd instead. He's already come up with a slogan: "Hoiland Mill Beef: Because they're better swimmers."