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Smaller turkeys, increased prices expected for Thanksgiving

American Farm Bureau Federation economists said despite the higher prices, there should be enough turkeys available for the Thanksgiving demand.

3829473+turkey - Minnesota Turkey Association.jpg
(Minnesota Turkey Association photo)
Courtesy / Minnesota Turkey Growers Association
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Consumers shopping for turkey and other Thanksgiving meal staples should expect to pay higher prices at grocery stores this month due to highly pathogenic avian influenza and inflation.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 46 million birds across 40 states have been killed from the disease since February. HPAI has killed more than 8 million turkeys, according to CDC data.

That prompted U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to warn consumers earlier this month on a call with reporters that finding 20-pound turkeys in some regions of the country could be challenging .

A chart illustrating that turkey weights are decreasing in the fall of 2022, compared to a normal uptick in weights during the season leading up to Thanksgiving.
Turkey weights are down in the fall of 2022.
Courtesy / American Farm Bureau Federation

"Some of the turkeys that are being raised right now for Thanksgiving may not have the full amount of time to get to 20 pounds," Vilsack said on the call to address the administration's effort to reduce food prices in the long-term.

The turkeys available in stores will be more expensive this year than last, according to American Farm Bureau Federation economists , who reported the retail price for fresh boneless, skinless turkey breast reached a record high in September at $6.70 per pound. That's 112% higher than the same time in 2021 when prices were $3.16 per pound. The previous record high price — $5.88 per pound — came in November 2015 during the last avian flu outbreak.

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AFBF economists said, despite the higher prices, there should be enough turkeys available for the Thanksgiving demand.

A chart showing a decrease in the number of turkeys raised in the United States.
Avian influenza has meant a decrease in raised turkeys in 2022, but economists say finding turkey should not be a problem this holiday season.
Courtesy / American Farm Bureau Federation

Michael Boland, a professor of agricultural economics in the department of applied economics in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, said that inflation is adding to the Thanksgiving meal price hikes.

“When we think about the inputs used to produce our food, we think about labor, we think about energy, we think about logistics and transportation,” he said. “All these things have seen increased inflation caused by geopolitical events and policy implications from our government.”

The good news, said Boland, is that inflation isn’t expected to increase for much longer. The forecast for 2023 by the USDA Economic Research Service suggests moderation in the food price inflation. 

“Food prices are high right now,” said Boland. “But no one's predicting that for the long term.”

A year-round industry

Minnesota is the No. 1 producer of turkeys in the nation and is home to 600 turkey farms around the state, according to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. 

In October, MTGA Executive Director Ashley Kohls said that consumers shouldn’t worry about there being enough turkeys for the holiday season. 

“They don't anticipate that there will be a shortage of turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she said at the time. “There's plenty of turkeys available now, and in the freezers, and there will be plenty of turkeys available when it comes to Thanksgiving.”

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According to MTGA, turkey producers create $1 billion in economic activity and more than 26,000 jobs for the state. Boland said even if there is a shortage of bigger turkeys for Thanksgiving, it wouldn't indicate a significant struggle for the state’s turkey industry. 

“We don’t import turkeys, we produce turkeys,” said Boland. “Part of our strength in building that turkey demand was the fact we built some export markets, and we've built turkey into a year-round product.”

Instead of focusing strictly on the price of turkey over the holiday season, Boland said we should be looking at overall consumption of turkey throughout the year, along with how more families are approaching their Thanksgiving meals.

“And let's look at what people put on their plate today, because it’s not always the same green bean casserole stuffing, corn, and can of sweet potatoes with turkey," he said.

Overall, Boland said Americans should be able to handle the price increases. 

“We've got to keep in mind that people's incomes are still pretty high, and the unemployment rate is low. Many people have fewer children or they've got adult children who are on their own,” said Boland. “There's still money in people's checking accounts, and there's a high degree of liquidity in consumers' pocketbooks right now, which has not been the case in other areas of and other times of high inflation.”

Grocer inventory

turkey-218742_1280.jpg
Turkeys should be available for Thanksgiving 2022, but finding a large turkey may be hard given challenges the poultry industry has faced from avian influenza, experts say.
Courtesy / Pixabay

Boland said food is purchased by retail grocers sometimes through contractual arrangements that are set up months in advance, but sometimes it's done on the spot. 

He said currently, many retail groceries are using a just-in-time (JIT) inventory system, which is a management strategy that aligns raw-material orders from suppliers directly with production schedules, along with quick drop/delivery warehousing. 

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“The old days of stocking up the warehouse when you bought something on sale and holding on to it, then releasing an inventory when it became seasonal — we don't see as much of that behavior anymore,” said Boland.

Food bank turkeys

Jessica Sund, director of development and communications at Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, said it’s “very hard” for them to get turkeys in general.

She said they can’t make any promises to have turkeys this Thanksgiving, but they make an effort to acquire turkeys, and sometimes turkey breasts, for those looking to have a holiday meal experience.

Sund has heard rumors about there being a potential shortage this year and said if they do get turkeys in stock they won’t be publicizing it.

“We definitely won't do a whole ‘we have 1,000 turkeys to give out to the first families that get here,’ because that would be an unfair nightmare and ruin a food shelf,” said Sund. ”We ration out our proteins and what we have. Food insecurity is an ongoing chronic issue that we try to address as a whole throughout the year equitably."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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