Our Contemporary Cornucopia: Exploring Today’s American Harvest

With ancient mythological roots (cornu Copiae is Latin for “horn of plenty”), the cornucopia’s iconic image of a cone-shaped basket overflowing with a bountiful harvest symbolizes prosperity and abundance and, in some interpretations, reward for virtue and perseverance.

In American folklore, the cornucopia is largely associated with Thanksgiving. Typical depictions include a horn filled with the “three sisters” (beans, squashes and flint corn, which Native Americans taught the Colonists to raise) and various combinations of vegetables, fruits, nuts or breads. Yet while visual representation of this cornucopia has remained relatively unchanged, the actual American harvest has undergone tremendous transformation.

Settlers arriving in the New World brought seeds and cuttings from the Old World and soon began cultivating onions, cabbages, root vegetables, cucumbers, radishes, asparagus, peas, lettuces and herbs. Fruits indigenous to North America, such as blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and wild grapes, were supplemented with imported apples, pears, nectarines, apricots, cherries and citrus fruits. The slave trade brought African foods such as okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts and melons. Fresh milk was neither available year-round until the 19th century nor consumed with significance until the early 20th century. Meat and poultry, which had been primarily game and fowl, increased in quantity and variety with the development of domesticated livestock. Small shellfish once harvested for bait—such as shrimp, crayfish, scallops, mussels and clams—took its place on the plate and in the chowder bowl. And as the American frontier expanded westward, varieties of plants and species of animals were discovered or bred for new terrains and climates.

The 1920s brought about the first big change in agriculture policies, focusing on direct government intervention to provide income support by increasing crop prices and controlling supplies. In 1996, the Farm Bill shifted to current commodity payments and focused on issues of food safety, food assistance and the environment. Industrial advancements also impacted the American harvest—from refrigerated railcars, commercial canning, and freezing and pasteurization to partial food preparations like pre-washing and cutting, and sustainable packaging—to accommodate transport, convenience, food safety and culinary trends.

Arguably, one of the most profound influences on the contemporary cornucopia is the cultural heritages of its people. Ethnic cuisines and ingredients once considered exotic or unfamiliar—Latin American chilies and peppers, Asian-Pacific cabbages and bean curd, Indian curries and lentil dahls, Mediterranean olive oil and hummus—have become so ingrained in mainstream America that its effect is seen in not only the foods we import, but in our domestic product demand.

For example, despite a relatively obscure historical role in America, tomatoes are now grown in every state. Wheat introduced by the colonists is one of world’s most consumed cereal grains. The U.S. ranks second to Brazil among citrus producing nations. Potatoes—the most consumed vegetable in the United States—is a staple across many culinary cultures. Influences from Asian and Nordic countries, along with increased awareness of health benefits, have created a market for oilier, dark-fleshed fish. And a surge in cheese and yogurt consumption has helped offset the economic effect on dairy farmers from decreased milk consumption.

When exploring America’s contemporary cornucopia, there are a variety of sources to consider. Commodity farmers are represented by industry boards, while resource management and monitoring is performed by agencies at federal and state levels. Depending on whom you ask, the U.S. is categorized into different regions according to crop types, production quantities, resources and revenues, geography, topography and weather patterns.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service developed a map of farm regions to reflect production of U.S. farm crops and commodities. Unlike previous versions, these farm resource regions are not constrained by state borders, but instead group areas that are similar in climate, soil, water and topography—and therefore alike in foods produced.<

They also have really great names.

Northern Crescent
Of all the farm resource regions, the Northern Crescent is most populous—and its bounty is as diverse as its communities. At the northeastern tip are New England’s coastal fisheries. Maine is the country’s leading producer of American lobster, but this summer’s proliferation and record-high catches saw lobster prices plummet. New England’s other highest-revenue species is sea scallops, which also dominated (along with blue crab) in the mid-Atlantic region of the Northern Crescent in 2009.

Northern Crescent agriculture includes potatoes, apples, corn, chicken eggs, fruits and vegetables. Pennsylvania harvests 65 percent of the country’s mushrooms, while New Jersey’s cornucopia contributions include eggplant and red table beets. Minnesota is the largest producer of green peas for processing in the U.S., and Vermont is the leading state for maple products. Michigan’s top crops include blueberries, cucumbers and dried beans.

The Northern Crescent is also one of the country’s largest dairy producers and home to Chobani Yogurt, which sourced dairy from within a five-mile radius when it set up shop in Central New York, and Cabot in Vermont, producer of the first halal-certified cheese. And while Wisconsin still leads the nation in cheese making, it’s also the No. 1 producer of cranberries.

With rich soil and more farms and cropland than any other region, the Heartland’s top commodities are cash grains and cattle farming. Soft Red Winter Wheat is grown in the Heartland, its flour used to make cakes, cookies, snack foods, crackers and pastries. Every state in the region grows corn, the primary feed grain in the U.S., and soybeans, the largest source of protein feed and second largest source of vegetable oil in the world. And because both crops have been hit hard this year by hot, dry weather, 2012 is expected to see the lowest corn and soybean yields in nearly a decade.

Many states—Iowa in particular—have hog farms. Their influence on the region’s culinary cuisine is prominent, from Ohio’s goetta to Missouri’s barbecues. In the 1950s, Chicagoan George Steven invented the spherical barbecue kettle, now known as the Weber Grill.

The Heartland is home to Greek-style gyro maker Kronos Foods Inc., which operates a USDA meat processing plant in Illinois, while nearly all of Barilla Pasta’s U.S. product line is manufactured in Ames, Iowa.

Northern Great Plains
With the distinction of having the largest farms and smallest population, the Northern Great Plains’ terrain, cold winters and short growing season make this region well suited for grains. It produces most of the nation’s Hard Red Spring Wheat (good for baking) and Durham wheat (used to make semolina for pasta, couscous and bread products). Grown mainly as animal feed, barley is also used for malt production by the beer industry and pearled barley for soups and other foods. Specialty grains from this region include amaranth, buckwheat, millet, rye and triticale.

The Northern Great Plains are also the nation’s largest producer of lentils and dry beans, including pinto, navy, kidney beans, Great Northern beans, black beans and pink beans. Canola, safflower and sunflowers are raised for edible oil production, while sugar beets (not to be confused with red table beets) grown in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota are processed into sugar.

Basin and Range
Spanning through much of the western United States, the Basin and Range has the largest share of non-family farms and the smallest share of cropland. Ten out of 11 states in the region include dairy, cattle and hay in their top commodities. Other regional commodities are sheep and hogs, and approximately half of the Basin and Range states grow wheat. Utah is a top producer of brine shrimp (harvested in Great Salt Lake and used as aquaculture feed), while one of New Mexico’s important commodities is pecans. And, of course, Idaho’s potatoes are famous worldwide.

The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, which sells its potatoes, corn, alfalfa, beans, barley, wheat and oats under the brand name Navajo Pride, is in Northern New Mexico. The farm has championed sustainable agriculture and water conservation for more than 30 years—important in an area where the average precipitation is about eight inches per year.

Fruitful Rim
With the most “large” and “very large” family farms in the country, this region isn’t called the Fruitful Rim for nothing. It is responsible for much of America’s fruit and vegetable production, including strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, avocados, celery, garlic, lemons, plums and prunes.

California is particularly nutty—pistachios, almonds and walnuts—while Oregon corners the hazelnut market. Washington is the nation’s leader in apple growing, in addition to pears, cherries, mint and hops. While innovations in frozen food began on the East Coast by a Brooklynite named Clarence Birdseye, close proximity to produce fields has made the Pacific Northwest area of the Fruitful Rim ideal for processing. Operating since 1919, Smith Frozen Foods in Oregon moves peas from field to freezer within two hours and corn within four hours.

And Amy’s Kitchen—responding to organic and vegan trends—began in a family barn and today as production facilities in California and Oregon.

Moving south along the Fruitful Rim, Arizona contributes cantaloupe and honeydew melons, while Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley is known for its citrus fruit groves. But America’s center of citrus is Florida, producing more than half of the nation’s oranges and grapefruits.

Alaska and Hawaii
While the 49th and 50th states are not included in the USDA Farm Resources Map, its predecessor map (U.S. Farm Productions) places them in what would become the Fruitful Rim region. In addition to its famous pineapple fields, Macadamia nut tree orchards and rich coffee plantations, Hawaii also grows cane for sugar (although not nearly as much as fellow Fruitful Rim state Florida).

Alaska’s climate and topography may limit its crop agriculture more than other states, but it absolutely dominates in commercial fishing. Alaska alone generated $1.3 billion in seafood revenue in 2009, more than any state or even group of states as defined by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It is also the only fisheries region in the country to have zero overfished species, due in part to its excellent record of conservation and management.

From farm-to-plate awareness to campaigns that support local economies, consumers celebrating the national harvest have plenty from which to choose. And while today’s cornucopia is profoundly different than in the times of the Pilgrims, it vividly reflects the diversity and traditions, old and new, of contemporary American culture.

Prairie Gateway
Representing the southern plains, the Prairie Gateway includes the entire state of Kansas plus parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska—and its leading commodities are of the bovine kind. Four of the five states solely responsible for more than half of the total value of U.S. sales of cattle and calves are in the Prairie Gateway. Texas is the birthplace of cattle breeds Beefmaster, Santa Gertrudis and Texas Longhorn, while Scotland’s Angus breed made its American debut in Kansas in 1873.

This year’s drought has affected many industries throughout the country, but among those hardest hit are livestock and dairy farms because of high feed grain costs and lack of pasture. In August, the USDA announced the release of nearly $30 million in relief resources to counties in 19 states. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the states still designated as exceptional or extreme drought areas as of September 18 are in the Prairie Gateway.

However, wheat has been significantly less affected by the drought, and the most prevalent class of wheat in the U.S. (Hard Red Winter Wheat used for breads and all-purpose flour) is grown in Prairie Gateway. The region is also the country’s second largest producer of oats, barley and rice.

Mississippi Portal
For centuries, the communities along the lower Mississippi River (called the “Nile of the New World” by the National Park Service) have been primarily agrarian. Although it is the country’s heart of cotton production, the Mississippi Portal’s main food commodities are poultry, hogs and long-grain rice. In fact, more than 70 percent of U.S. rice is grown in the South—and it’s the subject of a well publicized September 2012 Consumer Reports study about arsenic contamination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released preliminary data on arsenic  levels in certain rice and rice products and will share a more complete analysis later this year.

Fish and seafood are also major food sources in this region. Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production (the largest sector in U.S. aquaculture), while Louisiana fishermen caught more blue crab than any other state (51 million pounds). The Gulf of Mexico is also the country’s top hotspot for recreational fishing; 2.8 million recreational anglers, a vast majority of whom were local residents, took 23.7 million fishing trips in 2011.

Eastern Uplands
With more small farms than any region, the Eastern Uplands is home to a number of part-time cattle farmers. Part-time farms are sometimes called “hobby farms,” although some oppose this term for the implication that its business is less serious than large farms. In fact, most part-time farms are just smaller—they have less acreage, yield and income, which may be supplemented by off-farm income. The small, often family-run farms have a prominent place in historical and contemporary America. Most recently, the resurgence of farmers markets and co-ops have offered increased opportunity for part-time farms to distribute their harvest. Key food commodities from the Eastern Uplands include poultry, hogs, sweet corn and apples. It’s also where Allen’s is headquartered. Family-owned since 1926, Allen’s operates three canning facilities (in Arkansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin) and one frozen-foods processing plant (Georgia). Its portfolio includes “Southern Vegetables” like greens, spinach, southern peas (black-eyed peas, crowder peas, purple hull peas) and okra, in addition to broader vegetable categories such as green peas, corn and green beans.

Southern Seaboard
Along with the Eastern Uplands, the Southern Seaboard region is home to a majority of the nation’s poultry farms. Broilers—young chickens typically weighing less than five pounds and sold in pieces—arrived in the 1930s after Herbert Hoover’s prosperity campaign prompted USDA breeding of fast-growing chickens. In 2010, the top five broiler producing states were Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi, in that order.

Also cultivated in the Southern Seaboard are sweet potatoes, peanuts and peaches—and blue crab and shrimp dominate the region’s seafood revenue, despite a sharp national decrease (51 percent) in shrimp revenue due to loss of market share to imported farmed shrimp.

And finally, between Virginia and the Carolinas, the Southern Seaboard is also the top producing region for the most iconic Thanksgiving food of all: the turkey.

Liz Spittler
Liz Spittler is the executive editor of Food & Nutrition Magazine and creative media director at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.