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Growing Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is a national holiday dedicated towards celebrating the past year’s fruitful harvest and blessings. It’s well-known for being celebrated with family and friends over a table filled with delicious foods like pumpkin pies, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and, of course, turkey! While Thanksgiving is a well-known and loved holiday, many Americans are unaware of where their meal comes from.

Throughout the season of fall, pumpkins are everywhere - decorating tables and porches, carved and baked. They are one of fall’s most popular fruits! There are over 15,000 pumpkin farms in the United States, where farmers work year-round to grow one of autumn’s greatest feats. Pumpkin seeds are planted in the late spring, where the squash deviation grows for 75 to 100 days on vines. When the pumpkins are plump and entirely one color (colors range from orange, white, gray, and blue), they’re ready to be harvested in the fall. If harvested too early, the pumpkin will rot much quicker. Pumpkins’ stems need to be cut with around 4 to 6 inches of stem left. Leaving the stem protects the pumpkin from disease and insects, preventing the fruit from rotting rapidly. When making pumpkin pie, pie pumpkins are best to use as they’re smaller and much sweeter than the typical Jack-O-Lantern types.

Potatoes, like most crops, are planted in the early spring, but won’t begin sprouting until the soil warms to roughly 45 degrees. They take a little over three months to grow and fully mature. Water is extremely important for this plant, especially when they are in the flowering stage near the end of their growth. While the flowers are a delicate beauty, they’re actually poisonous to consume. The flowers will also form a bitter tasting fruit at the top of the potato plant, which are not meant to eat and are often thrown out unless a new potato breed is hoping to be made from the fruit seeds. When the tops of the potato vines have begun to wither and die, the potatoes are likely ready to harvest. Potatoes must be dug out from the ground where farmers will see if the potato skin is thick and firm, indicating it’s ready for harvest. A large machine attachment called a windrower is used to dig up rows of potatoes and put them into neat rows. A harvester will then pick up the potatoes, transferring them into a truck or wagon to transport the vegetables to storage or markets. Using modern-day machinery makes the process of harvesting potatoes much easier for farmers and less laborious, allowing customers to get their products much faster in order to make that well-loved Thanksgiving dish!

While cranberry sauce has gone down in popularity throughout the years, it is still one of the most iconic Thanksgiving dishes known to the holiday. Cranberries are one of the unique exceptions for growth. Unlike the majority of plants, cranberry plants are very picky about their growing conditions, requiring acidic peat soil, a growing season lasting from April to November, and tons of fresh water. Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in areas with plenty of sand, peat, gravel, and clay layers. Ultimately, cranberries grow best in wetlands like bogs or marshes. Because they’re grown in such wet conditions, the harvest for cranberry plants is much different compared to other crop harvests. Depending on what the fruit is going to be used for, there are two different kinds of harvest - dry harvesting or wet harvesting. Wet harvesting is done when the fruit will be made into juices, sauces, or processed food ingredients. This form of harvest would be done to make cranberry sauce. For wet harvest, the bogs will be flooded, the berries will then float up from the vines when the water is stirred and agitated. They’re then collected with a net and vacuum. Dry harvesting is done when the cranberries will be sold fresh for cooking or baking. During this harvest method, a mechanical picker will be brought into the fields where the berries are collected through it.

Unlike the previous Thanksgiving famous dishes discussed, the process of turkey farming is entirely different. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 240 million turkeys are produced a year and about 50 million of them are consumed on Thanksgiving! In order to make that well-loved roasted turkey - or any other turkey dish that makes Americans eat 16 pounds each per year - the turkey first has to be hatched and raised.

There are around 2,500 turkey farms in America that raise the millions of turkeys brought to our table at Thanksgiving. Typically, a turkey grows for around 4-5 months before they are sent to the market. Within those few months, farmers have to properly incubate eggs at the correct temperature and turn them hourly each day for 28 days. Once hatched, the turkeys’ food, water, and space amount must be monitored carefully and gradually updated as they grow. While growing hundreds of turkeys, the farmers must ensure that the poultry are well fed, hydrated, and healthy. They have to be given proper care at all times. It takes a lot of time, effort, and resources for turkey farmers to successfully raise their poultry and send them to the market.

Throughout the month of November, our Linn County Education Outreach lessons explore the process of raising turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving. Students also learn about the lifecycle of turkeys, different vocabulary words, and overall gain a better understanding of what it is like to live on a turkey farm. Multiple methods of learning are used in these lessons to help accommodate different learning levels and to meet the Iowa Common Core Standards. Students are able to improve their language arts and reading skills through reading our Flat Aggie Series: Turkey Addition, sequence skills through the Life Cycle of a Turkey activity, and more.


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