No matter where you’re eating your Thanksgiving dinner this year, there’s a good chance that the turkey came from Minnesota.
Minnesota's 450 turkey farmers raise about 18 percent of all the birds produced and sold in the United States -- ranking first in the nation. North Carolina and Arkansas come in second and third, respectively.
Minnesota has been one of the nation’s top producers of turkeys since record keeping began in 1929, but took over the top spot in 2003 after North Carolina’s production dropped.
This year, Minnesota is expected to produce 44 million turkeys, which has been pretty typical for the past 25 years.
There are several reasons that Minnesota performs so strongly in the industry, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
“We’re close to corn and soybeans, and that makes up anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the cost of raising a turkey,” he said. “Having those feed sources close helps reduce the costs that we’ve got going into those birds.”
Minnesota turkey farmers support about 1,800 corn and soybean farmers because of the feed that they buy, Olson said.
Another reason turkeys have become big business in the state, Olson said, is that entrepreneurs realized decades ago that buying turkeys from farmers and processing them nearby could be lucrative. Earl B. Olson developed the Jennie-O turkey brand and named it after his daughter in the 1950s, later selling the company to Hormel.
Wally Jerome in Wisconsin sourced birds from local farmers and grew Jerome Foods in the 1970s into the Turkey Store Company, which Hormel purchased and then merged with Jennie-O.
Jennie-O Turkey Store is the nation’s second-largest turkey processor and owns plants in Willmar, Melrose, Montevideo, Pelican Rapids and Faribault, with one additional plant in Barron, Wis.
The Minnesota plants employ about 5,400 workers and produce annual sales of $1.6 billion.
Other large Minnesota firms include Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, ranked 14th among all turkey processing companies in the U.S., and Northern Pride Inc., a growers cooperative in Thief River Falls that’s ranked 19th in the nation.
Olson said that the state’s turkey producers are a business-savvy group, and some families are in their fourth and fifth generation of raising turkeys.
They’ve been helped along the way by the University of Minnesota’s poultry researchers, both on how to improve feed for turkeys, and how to prevent and treat diseases. Expertise at the U and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health was never more urgently needed than last year, Olson said, when avian flu arrived in Minnesota and spread to more than 100 turkey farms, causing the loss of 5 million birds.
After a 10 percent dip in the number of turkeys grown in the state that year, producers have restocked and are back to their usual production rates.
More facts about the turkey industry in Minnesota, including how much feed they consume and where birds are shipped after processing, are available from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. More national turkey statistics, including per capita consumption and retail and wholesale prices, are available from the United States Department of Agriculture.
And here's some turkey trivia to stump your relatives with over Thanksgiving dinner:
* The average turkey has 3,500 feathers.
* Turkey farmers usually raise three flocks per year -- in large barns, not in cages.
* The average turkey flock has about 15,000 birds.
* It takes 75 to 80 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound turkey.
* Male (tom) turkeys are raised for about 18 weeks and hens are full grown at 15 weeks.
* A baby turkey is called a “poult,” and Minnesota is home to the Willmar Poultry Co., the world’s largest turkey hatchery.
* Only tom turkeys “gobble”; hens “click.”