Hemlock Hill Farm, a 120-acre organic farm near Cortlandt, New York, has been in the same family since 1939. As they prepare their turkeys for this Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations, farmer Trish Vasta says they are facing a strange holiday season for the second year in a row.
Last week the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) warned that costs of the traditional turkey feast has risen 14% over the past year. The cost increase, up from an average of $46.90 for a family group of 10 last year to $53.31 in 2021, works out at $6 a person.
Within the overall 6.6% increase in the cost of the family sit-down, including stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk, the cost of the bird has increased more than any other factor – 24%.
“The food system is consolidated, with a handful of farms feeding thousands or millions of people. But the system is breaking down. People can’t get the food shipped, because the shipping system is not working right, so people are looking local,” Vasta said as groups of turkeys, know as a flock or rafter, gathered near feeders, presumably unaware of a fate that was fast approaching.
Hemlock Hill Farm’s costs have risen too, with the price of everything from feed to straw for bedding rising 20% across the board.
According to the AFBF’s senior economist, Veronica Nigh, several factors have contributed to the increase in this year’s holiday meals, including “dramatic disruptions to the US economy and supply chains over the last 20 months; inflationary pressure throughout the economy; difficulty in predicting demand during the Covid-19 pandemic and high global demand for food, particularly meat”.
While prices are rising, rumors of a turkey shortage were not realized at the Stop&Shop in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Got turkeys stacked up to the roof,” informed a sales manager.
That’s not to say people aren’t worried about shortages. A woman passing by with a Butterball turkey in her cart, who gave her name as Wanda, said she had come by early for her bird because she had heard there could be shortages. Circumstances, she said, hadn’t reached the level of consumer panic that accompanied the first weeks of pandemic lockdown. “It’s not like that yet, at least,” she said. “Wait for Christmas.”
Nor was Stop&Shop taking any chances. Just to be safe the store was also limiting sales to one per $25 spent to discourage turkey hoarding.
Portents of empty shelves suggest inflationary psychology is hardening. Fears of inflation are growing, with consumers expecting prices to continue rising over the next year, amid a stew of unpredictable inflationary influences and supply-chain blockages.
Buying a turkey early, then, is in keeping with an early surge in Christmas retail shopping – a conspicuous slow-motion panic that may speed up as Christmas approaches. .
Thanksgiving can be a stressful celebration even in a normal year. The last two have been especially so. Last year’s was at the height of the pandemic, and a fractious election cycle. This year the US is still suffering the aftermath of Covid-19 and stories about inflation and supply-chain shortages abound. But it seems, at least, that fears of a turkey shortage have been overblown.
Butterball, the North Carolina poultry giant that produces more than 1bn pounds of turkey each year, told the Guardian that it had been preparing for this Thanksgiving a year in advance and prices “remain roughly the same as previous years, and turkey is one of the most economical parts of the Thanksgiving meal.
“While we can’t speak to the rest of the industry, Butterball, which historically represents about one-third of all turkeys on the Thanksgiving dinner table, can affirm that our products are available in stores this season,” said Christa Leupen, a Butterball spokesperson. “In fact, this Thanksgiving, we’ve shipped a record volume of fresh and frozen whole turkeys.”
Major industrial producers like Butterball, however, look to economies of scale that small producers have limited access to.
The price for Hemlock’s turkeys, at $5.99lb, is close to five times the price of a Butterball bird. But they come with the knowledge that the bird itself has at least lived a life “that has been more sustainable”.
An effect of the pandemic and its aftermath, Vasta added, was that customers may be more willing to entertain the belief that dinner should come from within a hundred miles of home.
“More people are thinking about going local rather than just hitting the grocery store,” she said. “The pandemic has really pushed a lot of people to act, and that’s helped local farms.”
Part of a farmer’s life, of course, is to predict the market six months out. Last year, as families gathered small groups, Hemlock produced smaller birds. This year, the birds are larger. But she too believes supply-chain fears have alarmed consumers.
“Food is essential and we see people are getting nervous. People are calling from Connecticut or farther, and we’re still taking orders, but we’re limited in sizes. The bird might be more than you want, but you won’t go without.”