Pass the gravy! Minnesota turkey producers stay on top

Minnesota turkeys will be the featured attraction at millions of holiday dinners all over the country in coming weeks, keeping Minnesota No. 1 in the nation in terms of turkey production, according to the latest statistics (PDF) at the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

The U.S Department of Agriculture projects that 45.5 million birds will be processed in Minnesota this year, about 22 percent of the total U.S. production. That number, though, is down about 5 percent in Minnesota, and the total is down 8 percent nationally this year, compared with last year, according to Lara Durben, communications director at the association.

Prices are down, too, according to the USDA market survey for last week that reports: “Compared to a year ago, average prices trend a few cents lower on frozen and are sharply lower on fresh. … More stores offer specialty turkeys ranging from organic to kosher.” Turkey production is expected to bring in about $600 million in revenue for producers and processors in the state, according to the association.

Minnesota keeps its top slot overall with three large, local processing companies: Jennie-O Turkey Store Inc. in Willmar, Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall and Northern Pride Co-Op in Thief River Falls.

Production cuts, however, were made in response to rising feed and fuel costs last year, Durben said, while per capita consumption has remained relatively flat overall.

The association is trying to heat up turkey consumption by reminding consumers that the bird can be substituted for other meats, and by keeping on top of emerging consumer preference for turkey products beyond the big bird.

One-third of all turkey consumed in the United States is eaten in the fourth quarter, and half of that ends up on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables, Durben pointed out. Processed turkey products such as turkey burgers, hot dogs, sausage and meatloaf have been fighting for shelf space in grocery stores.

But the whole bird is also taking on a new look beyond the major producers. Smaller-scale and specialty farms, promising more flavor and less guilt than the mass produced birds in grocery stores, offer free-range turkeys and organically raised turkeys.

While the growers association does not track production by breed, the market is seeing an increasing presence of “heirloom” or “heritage” turkeys as well, Durben acknowledged. These breeds — such as the Broad Breasted Bronze, Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland — were more common before mass production shifted to the familiar Broad Breasted Whites, which are heavy on breast meat and constitute the vast majority of commercially produced turkeys today.

Rumor has it that the Broad Breasted Bronze is best paired with Long Island Cheese heirloom pumpkin pie and German Johnson heirloom tomato salad.

The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association offers these “Minnesota Turkey Facts”:

• Minnesota ranks No. 1 in the nation for turkey production with 250 turkey producers operating 600 turkey farms.
• Minnesota has more independent turkey farmers than any other state.
• Many of these farmers are third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation family farmers.
• Ninety percent of turkey products processed in state are shipped out of Minnesota.
• Of that 90 percent, about 15 percent goes to international markets.
• The top five export markets for U.S. turkey meat (in 2007) were: Mexico, China, Russia, Canada and Hong Kong.

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