Thanksgiving turkey and fixings are available, but the big bird will gobble more of your grocery budget
Last year, it cost less than $5 a person to feed a gathering of 10. This year, that cost is expected to rise 4% to 5% more for the traditional celebration, thanks to a shopping list of issues ruffling feathers on America's "turkey road."
FARGO — Jenny Enger and Amy Scoville, co-workers at Fargo’s Microsoft campus, were at the Osgood Hornbacher’s, joining shoppers on Nov. 8 who were eyeing the early selection of turkeys filling the freezers in the lead-up to Thanksgiving.
Their mission: Find the right bird for an office get-together.
“Let’s just do a big turkey,” Enger said to Scoville, as the latter eyed some of the larger Butterball branded turkeys. “We’ve got enough spices.”
Enger said it might not even hurt to buy two birds, so they could “safely screw up” should the baking go wrong.
Meanwhile Peggy Lahren leaned against a freezer while her mother took a look at the selection and prices.
Lahren said they were looking for the right size turkey — on sale.
“I usually look for a 14-, 15- or 16-pounder. Why go any smaller?” Lahren said, saying it never hurts to have leftovers.
Lahren is ready for the holiday.
“Gotta have stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and turkey, and I’m set,” Lahren said.
Finding a bird to gobble up probably won’t be a problem this Thanksgiving, and the fixings should all be there this year, too, Hornbacher’s President Matt Leiseth said.
But your feast will be pricier than in the past, thanks to increases in feed prices for turkeys, labor shortages, and a pandemic-fouled supply chain that has ruffled feathers across the country, according to industry experts and economists.
The bite of inflation
In 2020, the cost of feeding a feast to 10 people was a real deal. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation cost survey, it was $46.90, or less than $5 to stuff each person. That was the lowest cost since 2010.
Helping keep the cost down was the practice of stores pricing turkeys as loss leaders, AFBF chief economist John Newton said. A 16-pound bird averaged $19.39 in 2020, or about $1.21 per pound. Overall turkey prices were also the lowest since 2010.
But that ultra-low cost feedbag is unlikely this year, thanks to inflation.
Consumer prices grew faster than expected in October, according to data released Wednesday, Nov. 10, by the Labor Department.
The consumer price index, which tracks inflation for a range of staple goods and services, rose 0.9% in October, and 6.2% in the 12-month period ending in October. That increase was nearly double the 0.5 percent analysts had expected the CPI to rise last month.
"When you go to the grocery store and it feels more expensive, that's because it is," according to Veronica Nigh, a senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The overall tab for turkey and all the trimmings will be 4% to 5% more this year than a year ago, Nigh recently told CBS MoneyWatch.
A quick tour of grocery store freezer aisles in Fargo and West Fargo found turkey prices ranging from $1.39 a pound for a sale bird, to $2.29 for other typical turkeys, though promotions closer to the holiday typically drop per pound prices significantly. One store had organic turkeys at $4.99 a pound.
‘A turkey for every table’
About 57% of federally inspected harvested turkeys are toms (male), while about 43% are hens (female). One of the main differences is size. Toms are grown to an average live weight of 41 pounds, while hens average 17 pounds. Translating this to the retail level, if the turkey you purchased at the store weighs 16-24 pounds, then it’s a tom, if it weighs 8 to 16 pounds, then it’s a hen, according to the USDA.
Average live weights vary depending on the time of year. From January to May, producers focus on producing large turkeys, which are suitable for processing. From June to November, however, production shifts towards smaller, whole turkeys, which are suitable for holiday centerpieces, USDA said.
Turkey growers say they’ve gotten their job done, despite seeing hefty price hikes for the corn and soybean feed needed to bring the birds to market weights.
National Turkey Federation spokeswoman Beth Breeding told The Forum that turkey options will be available and that there will likely be good deals in stores. And if you’re stuck buying a larger bird? Just wing it, she said. Leftovers are a good thing.
“Turkey is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, and Americans can rest assured that there will be turkeys available this holiday season,” Breeding said Tuesday, Nov. 9. “If families prefer a fresh turkey, a specific size turkey or a particular turkey cut, we recommend planning ahead with your local retailer to ensure you are able to get the product you want.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Hannah Halldorson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
“There will be a turkey for every table this year,” Halldorson said.
Minnesota is the top turkey producing state in the nation. Its 450 growers operate about 600 turkey farms scattered around the state, and will grow approximately 46 million toms and hens this year.
Lots of the birds will be on the larger end of the scale, so if you want a turkey less than 16 pounds, “now is the time to buy it,” Halldorson said.
“We would recommend ordering them now, just so you can guarantee you have the right size for your gathering,” Halldorson said.
Feed costs a challenge
North Dakota has a much smaller turkey presence.
The North Dakota Turkey Federation has nine member farms, producing about 1 million birds a year.
Dave Muehler farms corn and soybeans in Hankinson, N.D., and he also operates Muehler Turkey Farms Inc.
“We’re not a real large operation by today’s standards,” Muehler said Tuesday. He ships about 80,000 tom turkeys a year, with market weights of 40-plus pounds. He said most of his birds got to institutional uses, such as food service, as ground turkey or meat for sub sandwiches.
This year, growers have been challenged by high feed costs, which make up about two-thirds of the cost of raising a turkey. For example, corn hit a peak of $7 a bushel this summer, and while it is now in the range of $5 a bushel, that’s still historically high, Muehler said.
“Some of the highest feed costs we’ve ever seen. That’s had a definite impact on production costs," Muehler said.
“The price to the consumer. … pretty much like everything else you see these days, that price will be higher, but I don’t think anyone is going to have an issue finding anything they need or want for product. I guess that is the good news,” said Muehler. “Bottom line, I don’t think anyone is going to run out of turkey.”
Supply chain scramble
Tony Sarsam, CEO of SpartanNash, the parent company of Family Fare, said in an email to The Forum that his company has been planning for Thanksgiving for months.
“Across the industry, turkeys are in high demand and supply is tight. Trying to find turkeys from a producer right now would be nearly impossible,” Sarsam said. “Retailers continue to be impacted by the shortage of essential workers, including truck drivers, warehouse associates and grocery associates. This labor market has cause ripple effects across the supply chain.”
Sarsam said in the past, one large turkey (18 pounds and larger) might have been purchased to feed three families. In 2020, with smaller gatherings, three smaller turkeys would have fed three families. This year, SpartanNash has placed its bets on somewhat bigger gatherings, shifting its purchasing to 12- to 18-pound birds.
But, he says they’ll likely cost more. Over the past couple years, the cost of turkeys in the U.S. has risen more than 25%, and this year, they are averaging about 10% higher than in 2020.
'We're in good shape'
Hornbacher’s Leiseth said turkey supply is not a problem.
“Turkey availability is fine. We book turkeys before they raise them. That part is pretty easy. We got every turkey that we ordered,” Leiseth said. “We make our decisions on what people bought last year. We’re in good shape.”
He, too, laments the rising costs of feed, fuel and transportation.
“Just about every stop on that turkey road has increased costs,” Leiseth said.
Figuring out the size of the turkeys needed has been a head-scratcher, he said. How big will gatherings be? Or will people switch to a roast or a ham?
“Usually in a normal time … if you wanted a big bird, you wanted to buy it as soon as you can. Last year, many of the smaller turkeys went first,” Leiseth said.
“I think it depends on where we are” in dealing with the pandemic, he said. “Based on how many things are open in North Dakota, I don’t know if smaller gatherings are in it for us or not.”
He also doesn’t see any problems in procuring the ingredients for the traditional side dishes.
“Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing. All of that has been secured. The staples are available,” Leiseth said. “We’re in pretty good shape, as long as trucks come in.”