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As we travel and meet with family this week for the Thanksgiving holiday, there are two items that are bound to be on most tables — turkeys and sweet potatoes.  North Carolina is ranked first nationally in sweet potato production and second nationally for turkey production.  The state’s agriculture industry generates between $11-$12 billion from the sale of agricultural commodities each year, with livestock, dairy, and poultry making up 63 percent and crops making up 37 percent of total farm sales.

A native crop and the official North Carolina vegetable, sweet potatoes were grown by Native Americans prior to the colonial period and continue to be grown today as one of the state’s top agricultural products.  Grown primarily in the coastal plain because of the sandy soil and temperate climate, sweet potatoes are found primarily in Johnston, Nash, Wilson, and Sampson Counties.  North Carolina has been ranked first in the nation for sweet potato production since 1971 and makes up nearly half of the total US production.  In 2013, there were 62,000 acres planted with sweet potatoes that yielded more than 12.4 million potatoes.  

Predominantly harvested by hand, most North Carolina sweet potatoes are sold fresh.  Years ago the vegetable was only available during its harvesting period from August until November, but advancements in storage facilities now give consumers access year round.  Sweet potatoes have been used in a variety of ways over the years and today are used in many different dishes. They can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, baked, and fried and are found in chips, in frozen and microwave products, or on grocery store shelves.  North Carolina is also home to many food manufacturers that specialize canning, sweet potato fries, juicing, and dehydrating.

And while we all appreciate our sweet potato side dishes, no one can have a true Thanksgiving meal without the turkey.  North Carolina was the top turkey producing state during the 1980s and 1990s and since the mid-2000s has been the second largest producer of turkeys in America. The farming of turkeys is concentrated in the southeastern piedmont and coastal regions of the state.  The leading turkey producing county is Sampson, which is also home to a small town named Turkey.  Other top counties for turkeys are Duplin, Wayne, Union and Onslow.  In 2012, there were 36 million turkeys raised and 1.2 billion pounds produced, with a value of $848.8 million statewide.

North Carolina is home to three large turkey companies: Butterball in Garner, House of Raeford Farms in Raeford, and Prestage Foods in St. Paul’s.  North Carolina, along with the entire turkey industry, has faced many challenging obstacles in the past few years.  New diseases have caused higher than normal death rates, while a rise in corn prices (the main ingredient in turkey feed) has caused the price of production to increase.  Chicken has also eroded some of the consumer demand for turkey as lower cost meat. 

Overall, the North Carolina economy is positively affected by the agriculture sector.  Turkeys and sweet potatoes are just two of the many commodities that North Carolina produces at top levels nationwide.  So while you are gathered with friends and family this Thursday, remember there is a good chance you are eating turkey and sweet potatoes from North Carolina.   Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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