- The Washington Post reports that turkey farmers are struggling to determine their processing plans because demand is unpredictable as politicians and health officials are increasingly urging consumers to restrict their travel and scale back any large celebrations. Many are concerned they will be stuck with an overstock of large turkeys and won't have enough smaller-sized turkeys.
- Plants are also struggling to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks while dealing with a shorter harvest timeline, and retailers are trying to shift to diversify offerings with more to-go meals, turkey sold by the pound and plant-based options.
- Farmers and meat producers have already faced significant financial and logistical hurdles during the pandemic. When plants were forced to shut down to curb the spread of the virus among workers, farms were backed up with animals, many of which had to be euthanized.
About a month away from Thanksgiving, the pandemic is expected to disrupt 50 years of rising turkey consumption. While farmers and processors typically spend months planning and use previous years to gauge demand, this year is like no other. As travel is still restricted, much smaller Thanksgiving tables are expected to replace big family gatherings, and some producers fear that it will mean less sales and an oversupply of turkeys.
Turkey farmers have had some more time to prepare for potential demand issues during Thanksgiving compared to other meat producers who were forced to quickly shuffle production as the pandemic stopped processing facilities. When pork plants were closed, farmers had to euthanize much of their surplus, and now they are facing $5 billion in losses this year. Similarly almost 2 million chickens were killed in April as poultry plants stopped processing. Turkey farmers could look to avoid that by preparing for potentially lower sales now.
A spokeswoman at Butterball told the Washington Post that the company was expecting a large jump in celebrations with "immediate-family-only." The paper reported that its Butterball Turkey Talk Line, which helps consumers with Thanksgiving cooking questions, is expecting more demand than ever before because there will be more chefs making their own turkeys for the first time.
The demand this year would be a dramatic shift from years past. About 46 million turkeys are eaten around Thanksgiving. Since 1970, annual consumption of turkey has nearly doubled. Last year, 5.3 billion pounds of turkey were consumed in the U.S., about 16 pounds per person. According to the USDA, the U.S. is also the biggest exporter and turkey producer globally.
Over the years, there has been variation in the meals served at the Thanksgiving table as the plant-based trend grows more popular. Tofurky, a plant-based turkey replacement product, sold 5 million of its vegan Thanksgiving roasts in 2018. And last year, Butterball, Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods all said that they were working on developing plant-based options for the traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Tofurky told the Washington Post it already has seen an increase in early Thanksgiving orders.
Similar to others in the meat industry, turkey has also struggled with fluctuating demand throughout 2020. But recently the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2), which provides financial help to farmers, was expanded to include independent turkey farmers. This funding could help bolster turkey producers as they face even greater potential losses if Thanksgiving ends up hurting their businesses.
"The expansion of this program to include turkey clearly responds to industry feedback and recognizes the challenges COVID-19 market disruptions and subsequent foodservice losses have presented for independent turkey farmers over the past several months," Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, said in a statement.
For years, turkey prices have been dropping and hit a nine-year low in 2019. If consumers aren't buying as many turkeys this year, it could affect the price for 2020 and in future years.
As uncertainty builds fear among farmers, the National Turkey Federation published a blog this week to encourage consumers to "take back Thanksgiving."
"Just because gatherings may be smaller and travel limited, it doesn’t mean that you can’t reclaim the holidays as a time of celebration," the federation wrote. As farmer and processor concerns escalate, the question now becomes whether consumers will still celebrate the holiday with a traditional bird or forgo the tradition and leave turkey farmers reeling.