What smaller Thanksgiving gatherings and fewer events mean for turkey farmers

People are rethinking their usual Thanksgiving plans, choosing to stay home instead of flying somewhere for a big family gathering. That means the 20 pound turkey likely won’t be necessary for that holiday dinner. The uncertainty is leaving turkey farms in flux. Slaughterhouses have also been suffering from COVID-19 outbreaks among staff.

Laura Reiley covers the food business for the Washington Post, and she talked to some of the farmers scrambling to save their stocks and flocks.

“For Thanksgiving, most of us want maybe a 16 to 18-pound bird, maybe even a little smaller than that. Those are the females. Those are the hens. And for food service … like deli Turkey breasts, that kind of thing, those are the toms, so those are the over 20-pound male birds,” says Reiley. “So for a lot of the turkey farmers, they had to kind of make their gender split decision really early in this. And a lot of them are saying, ‘Geez, we may not have enough small birds, and we may have too many big birds.’”

How about harvesting the tom birds when they’re a little young? 

“They [farmers] said none of these birds, they don't pack meat on, they look kind of scrawny and funny-looking if you just harvest a tom turkey early. … Also it's a completely different market. So there's the kind of butterball frozen commodity turkey route, and then there's the heritage-breed fresh turkey,” Reiley explains. “For a fresh turkey producer, you earn a fraction of the money if you freeze those birds and sell them as frozen birds. So it's not a function of just pivoting to a frozen product. … They're going to hope that maybe they can freeze their toms for future use, and sell all of the smaller turkeys they can.”

She adds that other markets have dried up too because many sporting events, fairs, and theme parks were shut down in summer. And those are places where people eat turkey legs. 

As Americans decide to gather only with immediate family members this holiday, Reiley says that means many people who’ve never hosted a Thanksgiving will host one for the first time. 

“People who are unfamiliar with how to cook a turkey feel a little intimidated. They may make a roast. They may pick seafood. They may do something else entirely,” she says. 

Plant-based meats have also become popular, so a lot of households will choose a meat-free Thanksgiving, she notes. “A lot of the people I spoke with for this story said, ‘We've had 50 years of steadily increasing turkey consumption. And that this may be kind of an inflection point.”

— Written by Amy Ta