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On the Thanksgiving table: a bounty from several states

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, at 7:48 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, at 10:51 a.m.

From Minnesota turkey farms to Florida fields filled with green beans, the United States knows how to grow food.

And the abundance of America’s farms is on full display at Thanksgiving tables laden with favored dishes.

But which states are responsible for growing the holiday favorites that end up on your plate?

Well, if you want to talk turkey, the answer is Minnesota, where growers turned out 46 million turkeys last year to satisfy Americans’ appetites.

John Burkel is one of the growers. His family has farmed for four generations near Badger, Minn., and Burkel said between 60,000 and 80,000 turkeys make their way through his operation each year. The largely automated process handles about 12,000 turkeys every five weeks, starting in February with day-old chicks and running through November.

It takes 95 days for the turkeys to grow large enough to be ready to be processed, Burkel said, with some variation depending on the size of the turkey people choose for their holiday meal.

While Minnesota is the top producer of turkeys, a half-dozen other states are major producers as well. North Carolina comes in second at 36 million, followed by Arkansas at 29 million and then Missouri with 18 million.

Nationwide, producers turned out 254 million turkeys in 2012, up about 2 percent from 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Burkel, who is also chairman of the National Turkey Federation, said Americans eat, on average, about 17 pounds of turkey each annually. That’s held fairly steady for several years, he said, although the form of that turkey being consumed has changed.

Americans are eating more processed turkey – turkey sausage, deli-sliced meats, turkey bacon and turkey in prepared dinners (think Lean Cuisine).

The whole-bird or “turkey in a bag” market is now limited mostly to the holiday season, he said.

Traveling through a supermarket, it’s easy to see that the U.S. food industry is adept at meeting changing tastes and preferences.

Cranberries, for example, can be purchased fresh in the produce section – or as that familiar and beloved can-shaped gel.

And then there’s bread, which is Kansas’ claim to bragging rights on Thanksgiving.

From boxed, seasoned cubes ready to be cooked into stove-top stuffing to fresh-baked loaves and rolls that meld science and culinary artistry, bread takes a multitude of forms.

Kansas is the biggest producer of hard winter wheat, which is milled into flour to produce the bread for your dinner rolls and stuffing. And no other state mills as much grain into flour, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers.

But Jon Faubion says the state’s bragging rights should stop before dessert – specifically before the pie.

Pie doughs are better made from soft wheat rather than the hard winter wheat that Kansas grows, said Faubion, a professor in the Department of Grain Science and Industry at Kansas State University. It’s known as winter wheat because it’s planted in the fall, over-winters in the field, matures in the spring and early summer, and then is cut in late June or July.

Soft wheat varieties are typically planted in the spring and are grown mostly in the Northeast and Northwest United States, he said.

Differences in flour and their end products were studied first in the latter part of the 19th century, Faubion said, and the research really took off in the early 20th century, as the science of food became better understood.

Hard wheats contain more protein, and therefore more gluten, and it’s the gluten that allows dough to be elastic. That makes for excellent bread.

But with pie dough, you don’t want elasticity. Instead, fat (butter, lard or shortening) is used to hold the dough together until it bakes, making a flaky tender crust easier to achieve.

“You’d make a better bread if you used bread flour,” said Faubion, “and you’d make a much better pie crust with pastry flour.”

For Sharon Entz, bread is both a passion and a business.

“I grew up on a farm near Peabody,” said the owner of Crust & Crumb Co. Bakery in Newton, who graduated from K-State with a degree in milling science and management in 2003.

After graduation, she went to work for milling companies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Wichita.

“I always wanted to be a baker … but I knew the job opportunities would be really good with a milling degree,” Entz said.

Early this year, she decided it was time to give her dream a place to morph into reality. She converted her garage into a certified bakery and started turning out baguettes, ciabatta and two kinds of sourdough (wheat and white).

She has plans to move into a larger building in Newton in about six months, but for Entz, the focus will always be on turning out great-tasting bread.

She recalls an experience as a student in Madrid, Spain, where she bought a loaf of ciabatta at a neighborhood bakery, took it home, tried a slice and then ate every crumb.

“My goal is to make bread that good … that people take it home and just devour it … and then want more,” she said.

Her main ingredient is flour, grown in Kansas and milled at the Stafford County Flour Mills Co. in Hudson.

“I only use Kansas flour, Kansas wheat,” she said. “We have such high-quality wheat, why would anyone use anything else?”

The 300 million to 400 million bushels of wheat produced each year by Kansas farmers are part of nationwide harvest of some 2 billion-plus bushels of wheat, most of which is consumed by Americans after being milled into flour.

The United States is among the nations that grow enough food not only to feed their own people, but to send to other nations as well. Grains such as wheat and corn are commonly exported. And some turkeys or turkey products also are exported each year.

When it comes to most Thanksgiving dishes, they, too, start out as crops in a U.S. farmer’s field. Here’s the rundown of which states produce the most of other staples of the Thanksgiving Day dinner:

Green beans – In addition to supplying much of the country’s orange juice for breakfast, it seems Florida snaps up much of the bean business too, which fans of green bean casserole will appreciate. According to the University of Florida, the state’s bean crop constitutes about 44 percent of the U.S. total. And in the 2009-2010 growing season, Florida growers produced 193.2 million pounds of snap beans.

Cranberries – The U.S. cranberry crop last year was estimated at 768 million pounds, and according to Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state of Wisconsin was responsible for well over half of the harvest. Wisconsin produced 450 million pounds of cranberries. Massachusetts was the runner-up with 210 million pounds of the tart fruit.

Sweet potatoes – U.S. farmers grew 2.6 billion pounds of sweet potatoes in 2012. And the USDA says North Carolina was the sweet potato capital, producing 1.2 billion pounds. Other major producers include California, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Even more potatoes – If your Thanksgiving tastes tend toward traditional mashed potatoes with gravy, look to Idaho, of course. It’s potato production makes the national sweet potato production tonnage look puny. According to the National Potato Council, Idaho grew 14.3 billion pounds of potatoes last year.

Pumpkins – If you’re ready for dessert, turn your attention to Illinois.

According to the University of Illinois, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States for food are raised within 90 miles of Peoria, Ill.

The officials at IU say the town of Morton, which is near Peoria and boasts a Libby pumpkin processing plant, is the self-proclaimed pumpkin capital of the world. That plant, says IU, cans more than 85 percent of the world’s pumpkin each year.

And here’s a conversational tidbit for the after-dinner group: Pumpkins are members of the vine crops family known as cucurbits.

Wine – If you’re looking for a wine to complement your meal and your conversation, look toward California. According to the Wine Institute, a lobbying and advocacy group for California vinters, the state offers more than 100 varieties of wine. It also produced about 58 percent of all the wine sold in the United States last year.

Including exports, California wine shipments in 2012 reached 250.2 million 9-liter cases, according to the institute.

It seems an appropriate choice for raising a glass to celebrate – and to give thanks for – so much bounty.

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