Turkey carves a hole in budgets this year

Kenneth R. Gosselin
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Carving into the most classic of all holiday main courses this year — the Thanksgiving turkey — will first mean shoppers digging a lot deeper into their wallets before they gather around the family dinner table.

And finding just the right size bird for the traditional family feast will be a lot tougher, too.

“People are coming in, and they are freaking out a bit,” Tim Devanney Jr., vice president of operations at Highland Park Market, which has stores in Manchester, Glastonbury and Farmington, Connecticut. “They’ve heard some rumblings about supplies and shortages so they are a little nervous for sure.”

The supply of turkeys nationwide has been tight for several years and a particularly virulent avian influenza has killed off more than 7 million turkeys so far this year, according to the latest government statistics.

At the same time, farmers who raise turkeys have also been hit with soaring, double-digit increases in their costs, particularly for what they feed their flocks — another fallout from inflation.

All this is on its way to store shelves this Thanksgiving in the form of a more limited turkey selection — mostly smaller than usual — and higher prices at the checkout line.

At Highland Park Market, which sells almost exclusively fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving, Devanney said he expects the retail price per pound to increase this year to $4.49, up 50 cents, or nearly 13%, compared with last year.

“It’s going to be more expensive,” Devanney said. “The cost of feed has gone through the roof.”

Devanney said he expects Highland Park Market stores will have enough turkeys for its customers this year because its orders were locked well in advance, right after the end of the Easter season.

With winter around the corner, York County Food Bank prepares for increased demand

Political 'venom' crushes dreams of quiet retirement

New Freedom animal shelter seeking caregivers to address staff shortage

Frozen turkeys, which represented 70% of turkey sales in 2021, according to consumer data research firm Numerator, are also expected to cost more.

Last week, the average retail price per pound nationally for a whole frozen turkey was $1.99, according to the federal agriculture department’s weekly report on turkey prices. Those price levels — already a 73% increase compared with 2021 — could keep climbing as Thanksgiving approaches, experts say.

Russ Whitman, senior vice president at price reporting agency Urner Barry, based in Toms River, New Jersey, said he expects the selection of turkey sizes will be far more limited than in the past.

“Consumers just have to accept that the supply chain is extremely tight,” Whitman said. “And while there will be turkeys in the case, they will not be able to be as selective as they were in the past.”

‘We had to do something’

At the family-owned Ekonk Turkey Hill Farm in Sterling, co-owner Rick Hermanot said he tried to hold the line on price increases for his fresh, all-natural and pasture-raised turkeys.

But the farm’s skyrocketing costs for feed, fertilizer and even newly hatched turkeys contributed to a decision to raise the price per pound by 9% to $5.99, from $5.49 a year ago.

“It’s the biggest increase we’ve had in one year,” said Hermanot, who has been raising turkeys for 25 years.

The farm raised about 4,000 turkeys this year and has established a niche market over time in all-natural birds that are raised in a pasture rather than indoors where most of the country’s turkeys are grown.

Ekonk Turkey Hill Farm’s approach also is more expensive to operate. So, its birds are pricier.

“That’s part of the reason we felt we couldn’t raise the price that much because we’re already kind of a high-priced turkey,” Hermanot said. “They’re more expensive than if you went into Big Y and bought a Butterball.”

The decision to keep the price increase in check is squeezing profit margins at the farm, Hermanot said.

“That 50 cents — it won’t cover the added cost of raising them but it will help,” Hermanot said. “We had to do something. You can’t stay in business if you can’t even cover your costs.”

The farm’s costs tied to raising turkeys — the largest part of its business — saw stunning jumps this year, well above the overall rate of inflation. Inflation — the measure of the overall increase in prices — reached 9.1% in June, a 40-year high. Inflation eased a bit in September to an 8.2% increase.

Hermanot said the cost for feed, mostly corn and soybeans, soared 60%. Purchasing newly hatched baby turkeys — the farm doesn’t hatch their own — increased 25%. And the cost of fertilizer was up a whopping 280%, to almost $1,300 a ton this spring, from $440 in 2021. The fertilizer is essential to the farm’s organic approach.

The farm, Hermanot said, increased the number of turkeys raised this year slightly because it sold out last year, but held off on a bigger expansion. Workers needed for the intensive 10-day window to slaughter and prepare the turkeys have been increasingly hard to find in the past two years.

Even with this year’s per pound price increase, Hermanot said the farm has already taken more than 1,000 orders, well ahead of the 400 at the same time in 2021.

Hermanot said he doesn’t ask customers about timing on their orders, but he suspects worries about the supply of turkeys is a factor.

“I do believe that is part of it,” Hermanot said.

Birds are in demand

The supply of turkeys nationwide started dwindling between 2018 and 2019 as farmers dramatically cut production because they were losing money with just too many birds were being grown. Wholesale prices — prices that are charged to distributors and other buyers in bulk — had plummeted.

The pandemic further cut production. And this year, the avian influenza — a big concern for farmers because it is spread by wild fowl — lasted far longer, with some new cases even reported this month, according the federal government.

Once there is an outbreak, entire populations of turkeys must be destroyed, a particular worry if turkeys are inside buildings.

Urner Barry’s Whitman said the avian flu will generally mean smaller birds because the timeframe for raising them is longer. Turkey hens — what typically land up on the Thanksgiving table — take 14 weeks to mature, compare with a chicken that takes half that time, Whitman said.

With the birds in shorter supply nationally, Whitman said more turkeys are being harvested sooner to keep up with demand, overall resulting in smaller turkeys.

Bryan Hurlburt, the commissioner of the state agricultural department, said he also has heard locally that some farmers had a more difficult time finding newly hatched turkeys and got off to a later start.

Connecticut has seen some isolated outbreaks of the flu, but nothing widespread, Hurlburt said.

Hurlburt said he has not seen any major disruptions in Connecticut farms that raise turkeys.

“If you are interested in a Connecticut-grown bird, I’d suggest people contact their farms sooner rather than later and put a reservation on it,” Hurlburt said. “Those birds are in demand, and they do sell out.”

____

©2022 Hartford Courant. Visit at courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.