Monday, January 22, 2018

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State farmers make hearty contributions to nation's Thanksgiving meals

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    Wallace Jerome, then 23, stands next to his grand champion Bronze tom turkey in 1933 at the All American Turkey Show in Grand Forks, N.D. Jerome bought an abandoned pea cannery during the Great Depression in Barron and turned it into the turkey processing plant now known as Jennie-O Turkey Store.

    Contributed photo

Except for coffee beans used to brew a pot of java to wash down some pie and stave off a turkey coma, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner can all be grown in Wisconsin.

And in a few cases — namely cranberries and snap beans — the state is No. 1 in the U.S. for producing the main ingredient for those side dishes.

“In reality, as long as you have a little flexibility in your diet, you could very easily have an all-Wisconsin Thanksgiving meal,” said Mark Hagedorn, agriculture agent with UW-Extension of Eau Claire County.

The state is a major grower of several holiday staples and produces other parts of the meal to a degree, he noted.

Wisconsin raises some of the country’s turkeys, but it’s the side dishes where the state truly shines in its contribution to Thanksgiving dinner.

On the side

Wisconsin grew 55 percent of this year’s estimated cranberry crop — more than the four other states that grow the fruit combined, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Wisconsin also happens to be the biggest grower of snap beans in the U.S., producing more than a third of the country’s supply.

Local food cooperatives that focus on a 100-mile radius for their goods attest to Wisconsin’s ability to grow a variety of produce.

As she looked over her stock earlier this week, Eau Claire-based Just Local Food Cooperative’s produce manager Heidi Sanders sees potatoes, onions, carrots, rutabaga, beets, winter squash, garlic, shallots and apples — all grown by nearby farms.

“We’re looking at most of the stuff coming from Augusta, Chippewa and Osseo,” she said.

In addition to foods that make up the bulk of the meal, Sanders noted some of the ingredients that boost flavors — herbs for seasoning the turkey and morel mushrooms to add into stuffing — are locally grown.

“Wild rice, potatoes, cranberries, carrots, herbs, green beans, all of those things can be sourced from farms in Wisconsin,” said Beth Martin, marketing manager of Menomonie Market Food Co-op.

Martin acknowledges that doing an all-Wisconsin Thanksgiving supper made entirely from fresh organic food can be a little difficult due to the state’s growing season in the colder Upper Midwest climate.

Sanders said a couple of vegetables at Just Local for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner currently do come from outside of Wisconsin, namely green beans and sweet potatoes, after locally grown ones ran out.

“I had a hundred pounds of local sweet potatoes and they moved,” she said, adding that the cooperative asked a farm to reserve more space to grow them next year to meet demand.

Third in taters

While sweet potatoes are harder to find in Wisconsin, the state is the No. 3 producer of white potatoes used for mashing, baking, frying and other cooking uses.

“People don’t realize Wisconsin grows as many potatoes as it does,” Dennis West said, noting that the Stevens Point area grows lots of them.

He and his brother Brian own Nuto Farms in Rice Lake, which grows and distributes Kitchen Kleen brand Russet potatoes.

The pre-Thanksgiving boom brings extended hours for washing and packaging the potatoes that were harvested just last month.

“It’s a busy time of year, but a fun time of year,” Dennis West said.

On Monday, the business sent out three unplanned truckloads to supply grocery stores that needed more potatoes.

For the dairy included in the Thanksgiving meal — butter for mashed potatoes, milk to wash down dessert and even cheese for pre-dinner snacking — Hagedorn said Wisconsin makes them at its many dairy farms.

Trailing in turkey

The Chippewa Valley has a place in producing the centerpiece to many Thanksgiving dinners: the turkey.

Spooner native Wallace Jerome bought an abandoned pea cannery during the Great Depression and transformed it into a turkey processing plant in Barron. Through the decades, that operation grew and through a series of mergers it became Jennie-O Turkey Store.

Hundreds of thousands of turkeys are grown in the Chippewa Valley, Hagedorn said, and then go to be processed as whole birds or other cuts of meat at the Jennie-O plant in Barron.

Minnesota had the crown as the No. 1 state for raising turkeys in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, which did not have rankings for Wisconsin and several other states with significantly fewer birds.

Two food co-ops in the area get their turkeys from Minnesota farms selected for organic, free-range, hormone-free practices.

“The one thing we don’t have local to Wisconsin, but to our neighbor Minnesota, are turkeys,” said Martin of the Menomonie food cooperative.

While their turkeys also come from Minnesota, the holiday hams sold by Just Local come from Deutsch Family Farm in Osseo, said Nik Novak, who oversees meat sold at the Eau Claire cooperative.

Just desserts

Wisconsin does grow pumpkins — though far fewer than No. 1 producer Illinois — for the traditional Thanksgiving pie.

But for those who don’t want to juggle baking a pie while cooking a turkey and sides, several area bakeries work hard in advance of the holiday to cover dessert.

Among those pie makers that see a boost in sales is Osseo-based Norske Nook.

In addition to regular business at the restaurant’s four locations in the state, owner Jerry Bechard estimates the pie sales around Thanksgiving are about double what he’d see on regular days.

Thousands of additional pie pans are brought in and staffing increases to make the pumpkin and fruit pies people pick up on their way to family dinners.

“It’s always joyful yet stressful,” Bechard said with a jovial laugh.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter


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