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Most Iowa turkeys deli-sliced, not carved this Thanksgiving

Iowa is fifth in the nation for turkey processing and seventh for turkey production.
Iowa Turkey Federation
Iowa is fifth in the nation for turkey processing and seventh for turkey production.

Iowa turkey farmers raise nearly 12 million birds each year, but that whole turkey at the center of your Thanksgiving dinner likely isn’t an Iowa turkey.

The state is fifth in the U.S. for turkey processing and seventh in the nation for turkey production. There are two turkey processing facilities in Iowa — West Liberty Foods in West Liberty and Tyson Foods in Storm Lake.

The two turkey plants in the state further process turkey into deli meats, sausage crumble and turkey thighs, said Gretta Irwin, the executive director and home economist for the Iowa Turkey Federation.

“If you're going into a quick-serve restaurant and ordering a turkey sandwich, that's likely to have come from Iowa turkey farms,” Irwin said. “Or if you're in the grocery store and you see things like turkey sausages, ground turkey crumbles, those types of products, that's likely to also have come from an Iowa turkey farm.”

Irwin said there are some small independent farmers in Iowa who raise and market whole turkeys directly to consumers. But independent growers have faced hard times.

“A lot of it comes back to the availability of labor, getting people interested in local processing and interested in working those hard hours that it takes to run a meat locker and to do small processing in the state of Iowa,” Irwin said.

This year, the Iowa Legislature adopted atask force’srecommendations to create an artisinal butchery community college program. A spokesperson for Community Colleges for Iowa says several schools are in talks about this.

Bird flu has hit Iowa’s turkey industry, but not as hard as in 2015

This year, a highly contagious and deadly disease to poultry has been circulating around poultry farms and backyard flocks across the U.S.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza, more commonly known as bird flu, has infected nine commercial turkey flocks in Iowa, according to data from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Nearly 400,000 turkeys have died from the virus or been destroyed to stem its spread. Agriculture officials have attributed the virus’ spread to wild birds such as ducks and geese that are migrating and can carry the virus and shed it through their excrement or saliva.

Irwin said the turkey industry has fared better this year than seven years ago, when bird flu affected 35 turkey farms. She credited the decrease in cases to producers increasing their biosecurity measures, the things they do to keep germs, viruses and diseases off their farms, such as washing their boots.

“We're doing everything we can from not plowing fields close to turkey barns if it's a windy day,” Irwin said, “to making sure that we're just aware of all the migrating birds and when the birds are migrating.”

Though Iowa has seen cases of bird flu this fall, the last case of bird flu detected in an Iowa turkey flock was found in late April.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.