Minnesota is a turkey powerhouse.
Minnesota has been a national leader in the production of this flightless bird since the late 1950s, ranking No. 1 among states for the last two decades. Today, one in five turkeys grown commercially in America hail from Minnesota, which produced about 37 million birds last year.
So this Thanksgiving, there is a good chance the turkey on your plate (if you're a traditionalist) was raised on one of Minnesota's more than 650 turkey farms. Two special birds from Jennie-O in Willmar will even receive official Thanksgiving pardons at the White House this year.
Wild turkeys are so plentiful in Minnesota today that they occasionally stop traffic in city streets. But Minnesota is actually not an ideal place to grow the nation's dinner bird.
Baby turkeys (poults) prefer temperatures in the 90s. And the state's location on the Mississippi Flyway — one of the continent's bird superhighways — means commercial flocks can be exposed to diseases from wild birds, often through contaminated feed, equipment or even farmer clothing.
So how did Minnesota nab the top spot in turkey growing? Reader Randy LaFoy wrote to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reporting project fueled by reader questions, asking why Minnesota produces so many turkeys each year.
The state's access to copious amounts of grain in the U.S. breadbasket contributed to the turkey industry's success. But turkey farming grew popular here in large part due to the legwork of a culinary-minded University of Minnesota Extension veterinarian named William "Doc" Billings and some intrepid farm wives who helped eliminate a disease that had once limited the size of turkey flocks.
Solving a turkey dilemma
A century ago, Minnesota's turkey industry was in shambles.
Birds kept dying. A nasty liver inflammation known as blackhead killed up to 75% of turkey flocks, which were raised outdoors, often alongside chickens. And women on the farm, who typically raised the birds for extra income, were at their wits' end with the gobblers.
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