Small farms in North Carolina ramp up to meet demand for Thanksgiving turkeys
by Jodi Helmer, Carolina Public Press
In 2020, Jessica Evans raised 75 broad-breasted white turkeys at Evans Family Farm in Mount Ulla, North Carolina, selling out before Thanksgiving.
Evans purchased 120 young turkeys at the start of this season to keep up with demand for pasture-raised poultry for the holiday season. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, almost all of the turkeys raised at her Rowan County farm about 50 miles north of Charlotte have been sold. Evans blames concerns about a turkey shortage for the brisk sales.
“There’s been a big rush,” she said. “I think part of that is a little bit of scare of a shortage.”
Americans gobble up 68 million turkeys on Thanksgiving and Christmas. With headlines warning of pandemic-related shortages of products ranging from lumber and car parts to toilet paper and medical supplies, consumers are worried about supplies of their favorite holiday foods.
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“As with virtually every industry, we are dealing with supply chain challenges and uncertainty, and you see those fears articulated on the news almost every night,” Butterball spokesperson Christa Leupen said.
“We’re focused on what we can control, and our network of growers and our retail partners are working hard to ensure there will be a range of turkey products available for Thanksgiving and beyond.”
Some of the concerns about a turkey shortage are related to production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that stocks of frozen turkeys were down 20% from 2020, reaching the lowest levels since 2015.
Smaller Turkeys, Bigger Demand
Small farms ramped up production to meet the increased demand for local, pasture-raised turkeys for holiday tables.
Ben Grimes sold out of the 250 broad-breasted white turkeys he raised at Dawnbreaker Farms in northern Orange County, about 20 miles northwest of Durham, in 2020. He increased production this year, putting 400 turkeys on pasture at his farm, and he’s almost sold out for the season.
While Leupen declined to predict a shortage, she did warn that certain sized turkeys could be harder to find.
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“A recent Butterball survey saw a shift from earlier in the summer with how comfortable some people feel gathering for Thanksgiving, so it’s possible we could see more, smaller celebrations like we did last year, and smaller turkeys could be more in demand,” she said.
Cargill-owned Shady Brook Farms, which operates turkey farms in several states, including North Carolina, warned that small turkeys, defined as those weighing less than 16 pounds, would be hard to find during the holidays.
Evans has also witnessed the demand for smaller birds. Most of the customers purchasing pasture-raised turkey from Evans Family Farm are interested in birds weighing between 10 and 15 pounds.
Grimes, who started taking reservations for pasture-raised, broad-breasted white turkeys in August, notes that most customers want turkeys weighing under 15 pounds but quips, “The most popular size is whatever size we have available.”
Even if farmers increase production, labor shortages make it harder to get turkeys from farm to table. Evans said she suspects the struggle for workers in meat-processing facilities contributes to concerns about holiday turkey supplies.
Evans works with a small crew of local labor to process turkeys on her farm and distributes them via farmers markets, deliveries, and on-farm pickups, minimizing the disruptions that large producers face in getting their turkeys to consumers.
In addition to farming, Grimes operates Dependable Poultry Processors, a commercial facility that processes turkeys for Dawnbreaker Farms and other small-scale producers.
The labor shortage has already caused Grimes to turn away local farms, forcing them to find other options to get their turkeys processed for the holidays, and he admits to worrying about finding enough workers to process the remaining birds.
“Without enough people to process, we’ll be working longer days and (extending processing times),” he said. “I’m stressing about getting enough workers to get the job done.”
Concerns about a turkey shortage might be exaggerated, but shoppers should expect to pay more for holiday birds this year. Recent data shows that turkey prices are 25% higher than the same time last year and 50% higher than the five-year average, according to a report from Wells Fargo.
Cost is a major factor driving consumers to purchase pastured poultry from local farms this holiday season, Evans said.
“People are thinking, ‘If I’m going to pay $5.99 (per pound for turkey) at the grocery store, I’ll pay $6.99 (per pound) to my local farmer,’” she said. “What normally would be a splurge item to come to us is pretty comparable to what people are finding at the grocery store right now.”
For those willing to pay a higher price, it should be possible to find a turkey for the holidays — with one important caveat.
“If families prefer a fresh turkey, a specific size turkey or a particular turkey cut, we recommend planning ahead with your local retailer to ensure you are able to get exactly the holiday turkey you want,” advises Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation.
“The more lead time the better when it comes to planning the holiday meal, so consumers are always encouraged to shop early.”