If the doom-saying turkey pundits had been right, we’d all be eating ham this Thanksgiving.
Last summer, after a devastating outbreak of avian flu in the big turkey-producing states of Iowa and Minnesota, the media was full of predictions that prices for the surviving turkeys would soar. Holiday turkeys “will be hard to come by,” one expert told Reuters in June.
In case you haven’t done your shopping or reserved a turkey yet, rest assured: There will be a turkey for you. Not only is there no shortage, but turkeys are selling for some of the lowest prices in years.
For that happy outcome, we can give thanks to the resilience of American agriculture and enterprising farmers like Brad Moline.
Moline, 36, is a third-generation turkey farmer in Manson, Iowa, about 80 miles northwest of Des Moines. On May 19, one of his workers reported a “problem” in one of the barns. When Moline arrived, he found 90 dead turkeys among a flock of thousands.
That same day, he drove a carcass to Iowa State University, his alma mater, where researchers tested it and confirmed that the deadly H5N2 strain of avian flu had reached his flock.
No one is quite sure how the virus, which originated in Asia, made it to the American heartland. Moline had to kill every one of his 56,000 turkeys — half of them were 7 weeks old; half were 14 weeks.
“The outlook was pretty dismal,” Moline told me this week.
As an independent family farm, which he operates with his brother and father, “We only make money if healthy turkeys come out of these barns. We’ve never experienced anything like this, and we’ve been in business for 91 years. We’ve dealt with a lot that Mother Nature has thrown at us, but nothing like this.”
Northwest Iowa and adjacent southern Minnesota were hit especially hard, but eventually the virus reached 15 states, attacking chickens, ducks and turkeys. More than 48 million birds had to be killed, including 7.5 million turkeys.
“Our goal was to get back in business as soon as possible,” Moline said. “Our adrenaline really kicked in.”
After thorough cleaning and disinfecting, his farm was cleared to restock on July 23. But poults, the day-old turkey fledglings that he buys from a hatchery in Minnesota, were in short supply. Finally, on July 31, Moline welcomed a shipment of 28,000 poults, making his the first affected turkey farm in Iowa to reopen.
Still, Moline says he will be taking a hit to his annual income, which he estimates will be cut this year by two-thirds. His flocks weren’t insured. (There’s no insurance available, he said.)
He was grateful that the federal government, through a program that compensates farmers for losses incurred by infected livestock, reimbursed him for birds that were killed and paid some of the cleanup costs.
“But the payments didn’t cover our costs,” he said.
None of Moline’s turkeys will be on anyone’s Thanksgiving table. The 40- to 50-pound tom turkeys that Moline raises, typically produced for their breast meat, take an average of 18-20 weeks to reach maturity. And, in any event, they’d be too big. Most turkeys destined for the Thanksgiving centerpiece are much smaller hens.
But because of the pluck of Moline and his ilk, the retail price for turkey has already dropped in anticipation of a resumption in supply from reopened farms. He expects to harvest the first of the new flock the first week in December and to sell the birds to the local farm cooperative.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the week ending last Friday, the average retail price for frozen whole hen turkeys was 90 cents a pound. That’s down sharply from the $1.08 a pound the week before and is a penny less than the 91 cents a pound turkey was selling for a year ago. Toms were an even better deal: 87 cents a pound, compared with 93 cents a year ago.
Fresh turkeys, always more expensive and in shorter supply, were $1.54 a pound for both hens and toms, 10 cents more than last year.
Better deals can be found at many supermarkets, especially during the week before Thanksgiving, when promotional pricing reaches a peak. Wal-Mart is offering a 16-pound frozen Butterball turkey for an average of $10.64, or 64 cents a pound — 16 cents less than last year.
“As soon as we started hearing reports about the avian flu, our buyers moved quickly to lock up supply,” said John Forrest Ales, a spokesman for Wal-Mart. “We’re offering more birds than we ever have before.” Wal-Mart is also offering fresh turkeys at a lower price than last year.
The American Farm Bureau Federation said this week that its annual survey of the cost of a classic Thanksgiving feast for 10 was $50.11, slightly more than last year’s $49.41. It attributed the rise to a 6 percent increase in turkey prices that offsets declines in other items, especially dairy products like whipping cream and butter.
But the Farm Bureau’s survey may already be out of date, since it missed some of the recent price drops for turkey.
“We had to do our survey early, when wholesale turkey prices were consistently higher than last year,” said John Anderson, deputy chief economist for the Farm Bureau. “Turkey prices have really come down in the last few weeks.”
Consumers who take advantage of holiday promotions can do much better than the Farm Bureau estimate. Some chains were even offering free turkeys if customers spent a minimum on other items. Ales, the Wal-Mart spokesman, said shoppers at Wal-Mart could replicate the Farm Bureau menu for 10 this year for $32.48 — almost $17 less.
Supplies of turkeys, both fresh and frozen, have also been plentiful. Overall turkey production through the first nine months of the year dropped less than 2 percent, despite the avian flu outbreak. That’s because producers who weren’t affected were able to step up production, and much of this year’s Thanksgiving supply had already been harvested and flash-frozen before the outbreak.
The 7.5 million birds lost to the epidemic, while a large number in absolute terms, accounted for just 3 percent of the total annual U.S. production of 228 million birds, according to the American Turkey Federation.
Even in high-priced Manhattan, turkey prices this year are flat. Trader Joe’s and Fairway were both offering whole fresh turkeys this week at $1.99 a pound, the same as two years ago.
Of course, you can spend more: For turkey purists, California-based Exotic Meat Markets was offering a 10-to-15-pound heritage Red Bourbon turkey, a breed first cultivated in Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, for $149.99. Even more expensive is an Eastern Wild Turkey — “the turkey species first encountered in the wild by the Puritans, the founders of Jamestown, and the Acadians” — for $199.99.
Moline said he hadn’t been paying any attention to current turkey prices.
“It’s been so long since we sold any, I can’t really tell you what they are,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back in business.”