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Where Does Your Thanksgiving Meal Come From?

Take a closer look at where the staples of the holiday dinner originate -- from farms across the country, both large and small

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No, the answer is not the grocery store (though technically, that is correct). While that may be the last place your Thanksgiving fowl hung out before you brought it home, chances are the turkey was born and raised on one of the farms on this map created by ESRI and compiled from data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture (2007). The map also has data on three of the traditional side dishes: sweet potatoes, cranberries and green beans.


See a larger version of this map.

Some cliff notes before you say grace:

Turkeys

Turkey production in the U.S. is a nearly 5 billion dollar industry254 million turkeys were produced this year alone in preparation for the big day. But where are all of these gobblers grown? Based on the clustering of farms in this map, you might think states like Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia might come out on top in terms of turkey production numbers. But historically Minnesota is the highest producer of turkeys in the U.S.—raising 46.2 million turkeys in 2011.

What does this tell us about the relationship between number of turkey farms in the U.S. and the highest producers of turkey meat? Mark Jekanowski, chief of the crops branch in the Economic Research Center of USDA, says it has to do with the size of the farm. Minnesota, for example, may have fewer farms, but the ones they’ve got are more likely factory-sized—pumping out more turkeys than, say, a local farm in North Carolina.

“Most livestock you can produce almost anywhere, but in the U.S., turkey production is concentrated in upper midwest,” Jekanowski says. “The driving factor for the midwest is the abundant feed supplies in that region which is the biggest input cost for farmers.”

In other words: Turkey farmers want to be near the corn and soybeans. It only makes sense that turkey producers set up shop close to the processing plants and the cheap foods that will feed their livestock (Which explains the dots few and far between in regions like Utah and Texas.)

But not every farm is factory-sized. The map also indicates that there is a large industry of small scale production, too.  In fact, it’s not unusual to have turkey farms with a relatively small number of hogs and small-scale beef production too, Jekanowski says.

Cranberries 

A quick glance at this map and you’ll notice that the cranberry farms are heavily clustered in northern regions of the U.S. —Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon—specifically. The reason? Cranberries are picky when it comes to growing conditions. Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the U.S. as an option for cranberry farming.

“They need a wetland-type soil that you’re not going to find in more arid parts of the country like Arizona or Texas,” Jekanowski says. “The production is heavily driven by the geographic requirements of the berry.”

In this case, the number and location of farms accurately reflect the states with the highest production. The 2007 crop projections from National Agricultural Statistics Service list Wisconsin as the largest producer of the berries with an estimated 3,900,000 barrels; Massachusetts is a not-so-close second with a projected 1,800,000 barrels. Reports from cranberry growers this year show that production is down. An early spring in Massachusetts, for example, caused growth to occur ahead of schedule, leaving crops vulnerable to frost damage—just another example of just how particular cranberries can be before they end up on top of your turkey in sauce form.

Sweet Potatoes 

Traditionally, the sweet potato is a holiday root—a staple at the Thanksgiving dinner table in particular. In fact, in recent years, sweet potato love has spiked in the U.S. due to the health benefits of the orange-fleshed storage root (e.g., high amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamin A) often replacing white potatoes as a side dish.

But, like cranberries, sweet potatoes require specific conditions to yield the best crops. They need a long growing season, the heat of the summer and a lot of water—making the South the best home for sweet potato yields.

“Over many decades the conditions in the South have been identified as an area where sweet potatoes get the best yields,” Jekanowski says. “You might also find areas they grow well in other parts of the country—Arizona even—but in many other parts of the country, other crops grow better in those areas, and farmers will farm what’s most profitable for them.”

A glance at the map will tell you that these orange spuds grow just fine as far north as Wisconsin or Michigan, but statistically, sweet potatoes are most profitable and popular in the South, where per capita use was estimated to 5.7 pounds in 2001—more than twice that of the West (2.6 pounds), which consumes the fewest sweet potatoes.

Green Beans 

Though they are more commonly known as green beans, the USDA uses the lesser-known moniker of “snap beans,” the term which refers to the crackling sound made when fresh beans are broken in two.

Snap beans are produced for three markets in the U.S.: Fresh, canned and frozen. Fifty percent of all domestically produced snap beans are destined for canning according to the USDA’s Economic Research Center. Though there is still a market for fresh beans, the larger producers are located nearer to canneries and other processors. In 2007, 303,997 acres of green beans were harvested from a total of 17,300 farms. Sixty-five percent of that total acreage harvested was for processing.

Though the map indicates that green bean farms are evenly scattered throughout a large part of the country, in the regions with the highest production—the South and the Midwest for example—most of the production is driven by the location of the processing industries.

“Much of the production of green beans is frozen or canned— the need then is to get the beans to the processor within hours of harvesting it,” Jekanowski says.”Over decades within a fairly small area, processors have sprung up in parts of the country that tend to be good at growing green beans. It’s also contracted by the processing plant—the processor enters lines of supply in advance. Processors are not going to contract with people that are hundreds of miles away.”

Dive in!

Whether you’re doing the cooking or the eating (or both) this Thanksgiving, perhaps knowing where your meal came from may help you be all the more thankful…that you’re not these guys. And some other great Thanksgiving reads from Smithsonian.com:

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About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

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