Talking turkey: This food industry is one big bird

That main course at your Thanksgiving dinner is more than just a large bird. It represents one of world's most successful agriculture stories.

According to USDA-funded data research from AgMRC, America is the world's biggest producer and exporter of turkeys. As a nation we're also the largest consumers of turkey, eating around 16.4 pounds a person in 2012.

Turkey is part of a centuries-old holiday mealtime tradition in the United States. But over the past several decades it has also evolved into a year-round part of the American diet, as consumers look for healthier and less expensive alternatives to red meat.

The USDA says per-capita turkey consumption rose from 6.5 pounds in 1975 to 14 pounds a year by 1997. It also notes the turkey industry "has provided scores of new brand-name, value-added products processed for consumers' convenience, as well as a host of products for foodservice operators."

It's also become an important part of the American economy. The National Turkey Federation reports companies involved in turkey production and processing currently provide more than 300,000 jobs, bring in about $5.6 billion in tax revenue and have an overall economic impact of over $80.1 billion annually.

And AgMRC says the U.S. exported close to 362,000 metric tons of turkey meat in 2012, a 14 percent rise from the previous year, with those products valued at nearly $679 million. Mexico makes up the largest market for U.S. turkey meat, accounting for more than half of exports. China is the second-largest market for U.S. turkey exports, reportedly buying more than $70.5 million in turkey meat in 2012.

And for the record, the top five turkey-producing states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri and Virginia.

The industry recently went through what one analyst called "one of the tightest supply situations" on record, when the avian flu outbreak killed eight million turkeys or about three percent of the national flock.

This past September, the total frozen turkey inventory in the U.S. hit a 30-year low. Analysts expect the turkey industry's recent scramble to ensure turkeys were readily available for Thanksgiving, when more than 20 percent of U.S.-produced turkeys are eaten, will affect the industry well into next year.

"We have the highest prices ever, the lowest supply ever," Russ Whitman, a poultry analyst with Urner Barry, recently told the Great Falls Tribune. "It has backed everybody into a corner, buyers and suppliers alike."