Land-grant Universities Make Thanksgiving Dinner More Delicious

As you sit down with family and friends this Thanksgiving, you may not realize how key our nation’s Land-grant Universities are to making sure you have a bounty of food to enjoy. Since 1887, researchers at these public institutions have been conducting research to improve the nutrition and quality of the food we eat. Learn more about NIFA-funded research on foods that may be on your Thanksgiving menu.


The United States is the world’s largest turkey producer and exporter of turkey products, with Minnesota as the top turkey-producing state. In 2021, 216.5 million turkeys were raised on farms across the United States for a total economic impact of $103.4 billion, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). 

However, climate change has led to hotter days and an increase in the number of extreme-temperature days. A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota recently examined how temperature extremes are affecting the well-being and economic value of turkeys. The researchers found birds specifically bred to be larger and grow faster—more closely resembling commercial turkeys—can respond to extreme temperatures with gene changes that would lead to decreased muscle size.

Cranberry Sauce

The United States leads the world in production of cranberries. Wisconsin was the top cranberry producer in the U.S. in 2021 at about 4.17 million barrels, followed by Massachusetts with 1.8 million barrels of cranberries, according to ERS.

Unfortunately, 75% of growers surveyed by the University of Wisconsin reported that cranberry fruit rots (CFR) significantly reduced marketable yields in the last five years, and for many, the losses were annual.

At the Wisconsin Cranberry Research Station, scientists are taking a multidisciplinary approach to understand and manage CFR. They are evaluating the impact of environmental stressors and fertilizer on fruit chemistry and symptom development and determining the genetic resources for CFR resistance and stress tolerance to guide breeding. They are also developing predictive models for CFR management and distributing tailored solutions to U.S. growers through Extension networks and training.

Mashed Potatoes

Potatoes are the fourth most important food crop in the world and the leading vegetable crop in the U.S. Together, Idaho and Washington produce more than half of the annual supply, which totaled 424 million cwt in 2019 and was valued at $3.94 billion, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS).

The Tri-State Potato Variety Development program is a collaborative effort of Washington State University, University of IdahoOregon State University, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the potato industry and commissions from the three states.

The team’s concerted efforts have brought change to the Washington potato industry. This is demonstrated by a decrease in acreage planted with Russet Burbank vs. an increase in new cultivars and numbered clones during recent years.

At least 89% of new cultivars and clones were developed by the Tri-State breeding program. U.S. economic value of the recently released Tri-State varieties is placed at approximately $135 million annually. A recent economic analysis of the program revealed that every dollar invested in the Tri-State program results in a $39 return to the industry.

Green Bean Casserole

Idaho ranks the first in green bean production in the U.S. Idaho’s long growing season, rich volcanic soils, mountain water supply and a comprehensive quality control program allow Idaho to produce the highest quality, disease-free bean seed recognized worldwide.

With soil and water conservation practices like direct-seed and strip-tillage and high-efficiency drip irrigation becoming more popular among crop producers, there is a tremendous need for evaluating how tillage and water application methods and amounts may affect green bean production.

Plant and soil scientists and water management engineers at the University of Idaho are conducting two field experiments to develop sustainable water and soil conservation strategies for green bean production. The three-year study focuses on the effects of water management using drip irrigation versus furrow irrigation in two tillage systems: conventional and strip tillage. Crop growth, bean yield and quality will be measured in response to these water and soil management practices.

Researchers estimate that within five to 10 years, adoption of drip irrigation by 25% of bean growers will result in a water savings of at least 15% compared to current water used for bean irrigation. Similarly, growers adopting drip irrigation will see an increase in production value of over $585/acre with an additional savings of over $135/acre; and farmers will decrease nitrogen fertilizer use by 50% within five years of adopting reduced till practices.

Sweet Potato Casserole

Louisiana has the only research station in the nation solely devoted to sweet potatoes. In 1949, the first foundation seed was planted at the Louisiana State University Sweet Potato Research Station. Sprouts from these roots formed the nucleus of the foundation seed program, which continues to supply producers with healthy seed.

Released in 1987, the Beauregard sweet potato had a beautiful shape and color, and a sweet taste unlike previous earlier varieties. Developed by entomologist Larry Rolston for its insect resistance, the Beauregard went on to reinvigorate Louisiana’s sweet potato industry. It is widely adopted throughout the U.S. industry.

North Carolina has ranked as the No. 1 sweet potato-producing state in the U.S. since 1971. According to NASS, North Carolina produced 1.8 billion pounds of sweet potatoes in 2021, accounting for roughly 64% of all production in the nation.

Diseases caused by plant pathogens such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes and viruses can significantly limit vegetable production and quality, and in some cases, threaten the survival of the vegetable industry. In 2014, North Carolina State University researchers began to see samples of sweet potatoes infected with black rot. By the end of 2015, sweet potatoes infected with black rot went from 5% statewide to 85%, and 100% in the packing houses.

In response to the sweet potato black rot epidemic, researchers quickly began collecting isolates to see if fungicides could kill the pathogen. One fungicide tested was effective. An emergency label to apply the fungicide post-harvest was secured, and in three months, the black rot threat had been cleaned up with the effort reducing disease-related sweet potato losses from 80% to 5%. Following the epidemic, NC State Extension faculty developed integrated pest management strategies to prevent disease transmission and steps to limit and control future black rot outbreaks.

Fried Oysters

Oysters are harvested across the country, and some of the most delicious are said to be found in the Damariscotta River estuary in Maine. The largest site for oyster growth in the state, 80% of all Maine oysters are harvested from this river.

Since 1978, the Maine Aquaculture Association has worked to support Maine’s aquatic growers in developing economically and environmentally sustainable business practices, promoting the benefits of aquaculture in the local food system and preserving Maine’s heritage of a vibrant working waterfront.

Funding in 2021 from NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program provided more than 70 beginning Maine aquaculture farmers with in-depth training on business planning, risk management, marketing, diversification and benchmarking.

A new round of AFRI funding will expand the initial successes of these beginning aquaculture farmers who produce oysters, mussels, scallops and seaweed. Advanced training will help growers learn more about analyzing their farm, business plan, initial performance during the pre and early revenue stages, and develop strategies and plans to ensure future success.


Florida and Louisiana account for nearly 97% of U.S. sugarcane production. Agricultural research in Louisiana officially began with the establishment of the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station in 1885 at Louisiana State University (LSU).

The Audubon Sugar School began in 1891 as part of the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station. The school grew into the present-day Audubon Sugar Institute and offered what is believed to be the first chemical engineering class.

One hindrance to sugarcane breeding in Louisiana was the plant’s lack of flowering because of low fall temperatures. An LSU plant pathologist and sugarcane breeder established artificial photoperiod schedules that would allow sugarcane to flower in Louisiana. This groundbreaking research in the late 1940s and 1950s was conducted in LSU campus facilities. This meant sugarcane crossing could be conducted locally instead of relying on Florida facilities.

The Sugar Research Station’s primary goal continues to be the development of new sugarcane varieties and integrated pest management systems for sugarcane. New variety development takes nearly 12 years, and much of the groundwork is performed there. Through this station’s efforts, Louisiana’s sugarcane industry remains profitable and poised to continue a tradition that is more than 200 years old.

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin production is widely dispersed across the country with crop conditions varying greatly by region. According to NASS, nearly 66,200 acres of pumpkins were harvested in the U.S. in 2020, producing more than 1.5 billion pounds of usable pumpkins with more than 2 billion produced overall.

At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), researchers have been squashing the competition when it comes to releasing new varieties of cucurbits, which includes pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and squash. UNH is home to the longest, continuous squash and pumpkin breeding program in North America. This work has resulted in more than 80 new cucurbit varieties sold in seed catalogs around the world. 

Pecan Pie

Pecans are one of the nation’s most important nut crops. NASS reports pecan production increased 18% in 2020 from 2019 to 302 million pounds with a total value of $399 million. Georgia holds the spot as the top pecan-producing state, harvesting 142 million pounds on more than 215,000 acres.  

According to the University of Georgia Extension, one of the most important decisions a pecan producer makes is about the establishing a new orchard. A well-planned, organized orchard will be more efficient, require less input and offer larger potential returns.

Fortunately, UGA Extension offers resources to help future pecan farms establish new orchards. This includes evaluating soil and site characteristics; preparing the orchard site for planting; and designing the orchard for proper pollination, ease of operation and aid in future tree thinning.

Additionally, UGA Extension provides resources on options for planting trees such as starting by planting seeds in place; planting seedling trees and grafting them in two years; or planting grafted trees. They provide guidance on irrigating young trees via sprinkler, drip or micro-irrigation; fertilizing young trees; and controlling weeds.

Happy Thanksgiving from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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