John Peterson, a third-generation turkey farmer, has had customers come to his Ferndale Market in Minnesota lately asking whether they’re going to run out of turkeys heading into Thanksgiving. Everything feels scarce right now, and people assume turkeys will be, too, even though from where Peterson’s sitting, that’s not really the case. “We don’t have any reason that we should run out of turkeys,” he says. “We’re growing the same number of turkeys that we did a year ago.” That translates, for his farm, to 150,000 turkeys annually.
Still, the concerned customers are on to something. There isn’t a mass turkey shortage, but the birds may not be as easy to get at the grocery store right now as they have been in years past. Or at least, not the turkeys meat eaters want.
An estimated 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving in the United States, and nearly 9 in 10 Americans eat turkey on the holiday. Thanksgiving is the turkey industry’s Super Bowl, and this year, like last year, that main event is going to look a little bit different. According to the USDA, frozen turkey inventories are 24 percent below their three-year average volumes, and production of turkeys is down compared to the average year.
There are turkeys out there, but thanks to supply chain disruptions and labor shortages that are plaguing countless industries, it’s going to be a bit more challenging and more expensive to get one this year.
“I don’t like the word ‘shortage’ in this scenario. It’s not like we forgot to start raising turkeys,” said Trey Malone, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University. “What’s really happening is that you have these disruptions along the supply chain. It’s not because there’s no turkeys, it’s that the turkeys are in the wrong places at the wrong time.”
Peterson grows the turkeys on his farm (free range, no antibiotics), sends them away to be processed, after which some are sent out to stores and others come back to be sold from the market he runs. Just because there’s no shortage doesn’t mean he hasn’t experienced the challenges brought on by the pandemic — challenges that are evolving.
Feeding the turkeys has become more expensive, thanks to rising corn and soybean costs. The processors he works with have struggled with the labor shortage. And then there’s shipping. “The cost of getting anything moved around has gone up dramatically,” he says. “We’re really feeling that bottleneck — that it is flat-out harder to get things moved at any price, and when you do it, it’s far more expensive.”
The good news is that if you want to eat turkey on Thanksgiving this year, you’ll probably be able to. It just might not be the turkey of your dreams.
The pandemic made last year’s Thanksgiving tricky for consumers and for the industry, in large part because people gathered in much smaller groups, if they got together at all. Because people tend to try to buy turkeys to fit the size of their gathering, that meant they wanted smaller birds — and that made smaller birds hard to come by.
“There was just a tremendous demand for smaller turkeys, nobody wanted the big birds,” Peterson said. That translated to a desire for more “units” — as in, birds — rather than pounds, he explained. “If you took what would have been two years ago a gathering of 20 people and broke that into four gatherings of five people last year, all of a sudden, you needed four small turkeys rather than one big turkey,” he said.
This year, there are even more variables in the mix. It’s still not entirely clear if the demand for turkey sizes is going to return to where it was in 2019. Some families are gathering in large groups again this year, but not everyone. Because it takes a few months to grow turkeys and distributors and grocery stores want to plan ahead, those up and down the supply chain had to basically guess what this year would look like months ago, when the delta variant was spreading. Malone said part of what’s going on is the “bullwhip effect,” where an unanticipated change in consumer demand (the pandemic) causes ripple effects across the system.
Will Liao, the owner of Queens Natural Meats in New York, told me he had to essentially “make a bet” on how many turkeys and what turkeys he needed back in August and commit to purchasing them. He placed the same order as last year, which he estimates is about 30 to 40 percent less than pre-pandemic. “I don’t want to get stuck with turkeys,” he said.
Beyond just not knowing exactly what consumers will want this Thanksgiving, there are other and perhaps more important variables in play. Costs have increased, including to feed turkeys and move them. Processors are facing labor shortages that are holding things up.
The issues are hitting players big and small. Kyle Lock, senior director of retail marketing at Butterball, said that the company has had issues securing trucks for distribution, for which it generally counts on third parties. “Because we do this every year and because we’re such a well-oiled machine, we can count on long-term relationships to help us create more consistency in that, but the same issues apply to the availability of trucks and drivers,” he said. “Overall, the supply chain has proven itself to be fragile.”
In an email, Tony Sarsam, CEO of grocery distributor and retailer SpartanNash, said it would be “nearly impossible” to find turkeys from a producer right now if they weren’t already set for the season. “Retailers continue to be impacted by the shortage of essential workers, including truck drivers, warehouse associates, and grocery store associates. This labor market has caused ripple effects across the supply chain, impacting everything from port unloading delays to consistent increases in food pricing,” he said.
Any and all disruptions to the supply chain pose a risk in terms of getting turkeys from the farm to the processor to the distributor to the grocery store to the table. If the whole process running right takes the hypothetically 100 days it’s supposed to, that’s good. If it takes 101 days, that’s a problem — hardly anybody is scooping up whole turkeys the day after Thanksgiving.
This year’s holiday season, from Thanksgiving through the end of the year, is pretty much guaranteed to be pricier than last year’s, and certain items are likely to be hard to find. Thanksgiving turkey is no exception.
According to the Department of Agriculture’s Turkey Report, whole frozen turkeys already cost about 26 cents a pound more this year than they did last year. According to the USDA, wholesale prices for frozen whole-hen turkeys averaged the highest monthly price in September since the series started in 2006. Prices fell slightly heading into early October, but they’re still some of the highest prices of the year.
It’s not entirely clear what that will mean for consumer prices; it will depend on the choices grocery stores make heading into the holiday. While prices are up, turkeys are traditionally known as a “loss-leader” in the grocery store, said Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing at the National Turkey Federation. That basically means they’re already sold at a price that isn’t profitable in order to get customers into the store.
Peterson, the turkey farmer, said they’ve changed the pricing on their turkeys in their store and to wholesale customers somewhat, but they didn’t increase prices enough to cover the full cost of rising expenses. As to what consumers will see at the grocery store, he’s not sure. “Stores take such different pricing strategies with different turkeys,” he said. “We all see the every-year tradition of big-box stores selling frozen turkeys at a loss, just literally selling a turkey for less than somebody could grow that turkey for, but they sell it at a loss knowing that you’re going to buy potatoes and stuffing and whatnot.”
Grocery stores were hesitant to provide specifics on pricing, with SpartanNash noting that “pricing and promotions are regularly evaluated based on the supply and demand in each market.” According to consumer price data from NielsenIQ, which tracks US checkout prices at a wide variety of retailers, the cost of a whole frozen turkey increased 23 percent in the four weeks ending October 30, compared to the same period a year ago.
Lock, from Butterball, said that while it’s reasonable to assume that consumer prices on turkeys will be higher than they have been in a typical year, there are always some deals to be had. “There is some constant in that the retailers, and we basically deal with all of them, they do still try to create deals and opportunities especially for frozen whole turkey, so that that part of your basket might be a little less expensive,” he said.
Nicole Behne, vice president of marketing at Jennie-O, said they “aren’t seeing any major promotional shifts or deviations from what you would normally expect to see in the retail community.”
Still, people might be spooked when they see turkey prices this year.
Beyond that — and regardless of the price of the turkey — the rest of the cost of Thanksgiving is going to be higher, too. The Consumer Price Index showed that the cost of food was up 5.3 percent over the past year in October. The index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs was up 11.9 percent, and for fruits and vegetables, up 3 percent. Plenty of ingredients are just going to be costlier this year.
Almost every person I talked to for this story had the same piece of advice for consumers on how to approach this year’s Thanksgiving: Don’t wait until the last minute to hit up the grocery store for the big meal. If you want a frozen turkey, go ahead and buy it now. If you want a fresh one, reserve it if possible. Also, the best turkey might just wind up being the one you can get, so prepare to get creative if you wind up with leftovers.
“We think that there are going to be turkeys available for consumers,” Breeding, from the National Turkey Federation, said. “They may just need to be flexible when going to the grocery store and getting what size is available or what type of turkey is available to them, particularly if they’re going the week before.”
While people wanted small turkeys to match their gatherings last year, it’s not entirely clear what demand this year is going to look like. Sarsam, from SpartanNash, said they expect families to resume Thanksgiving traditions this year and think that demand for mid-size turkeys in the 12- to 18-pound range will be up. Behne, from Jennie-O, said the company’s consumer polling found that most people were hoping Thanksgiving this year would be back to normal, but over half say they’re still planning for video calls or Zoom-type family events. “They’re not quite ready to go back yet,” she said.
Liao said that last year he had too many big birds and not enough small ones, and so far this year, it’s looking like the situation will be the reverse. “In typical years, I would over-order,” he said. “But this year I did not, because if delta did not subside, there would be no Thanksgiving this year again.”
Everybody in the industry is sort of speculating what Thanksgiving will look like and to what extent consumers are going to be back at it. Consumers are also speculating about what they’ll be able to get and what it will cost them. People should consider and even anticipate swapping out certain items or brands.
“Say, for example, you like Green Giant canned corn but that label’s not available on the shelf, so you get another label. It’s still corn, right?” said Pedro Reyes, a professor and supply chain expert at Baylor University. Or, people might spring for a ham instead of a turkey, or a turkey breast instead of a whole bird.
The turkey industry is trying to work with consumers to deliver as normal a holiday as possible, whatever the new normal is. Both Jennie-O and Butterball run turkey hotlines to help people with their questions — including first-time Thanksgiving chefs. The National Turkey Foundation has a Thanksgiving 101 guide. Brands are also trying to get creative. Butterball has videos on YouTube and TikTok with its talk line experts talking turkey. Jennie-O has enlisted influencers, including dancer Phil Wright, to try to make the turkey dance a thing. (It is quite a bit harder than the chicken dance.)
Peterson is telling his customers not to worry so much about whether they’ll be able to find a turkey — his business has kept up and running throughout the pandemic. Liao asked several times in our interview to remind customers to be nice to workers when they’re out shopping. For most food retailers, Thanksgiving is a break-even week, he said, and people get extremely stressed around the holidays, sellers and buyers alike.
“These are the people that took care of you during Covid, they went to work every day, I went to work every day, to make sure you could eat,” Liao said. “If this year there’s a shortage of supplies, it’s not their fault.”
His message to buyers: “Thanksgiving is not necessarily about the turkey. It’s about a bunch of other stuff.” Getting angry at retail workers doesn’t embody a spirit of gratitude. If dinner doesn’t look exactly like you expect, “it’s okay, it’s just turkeys.”
Update, November 10, 8:45 am: This story was updated to reflect newly released October Consumer Price Index figures.