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Goodbye Big Bird: Pandemic Thanksgiving Drives Demand for Small Turkeys Consumer Choose to Feed Fewer, Or Plan for More Leftovers

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Above image credit: Pre-Thanksgiving turkeys at a farm in New Jersey. (Seth Wenig | AP)
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4 minute read

Veronica Hernandez’s Thanksgiving normally is a large affair. 

Her mom and 10 other siblings, plus their families, gather in Hernandez’s home in Hyde Park to eat, dance, play games, play music and simply enjoy the excuse to gather in one place. The party starts at 8 p.m., and goes well into the early hours of the morning.

This year will be different, however. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing this celebration of more than 50 people to shrink to about 10. That changes the experience completely. 

“This year it’s looking really different,” Hernandez said. “And since they came to the states, this is the first time everybody is doing everything separate.”

Now Hernandez doesn’t have to do nearly as much prep around the house. But she will have to cook, rather than enjoy the potluck style meal that her family typically provides. 

There is one thing they will be able to cut down on: turkey.

“Usually at our normal Thanksgiving, we have to have two or three turkeys,” Hernandez said. “This year we are for sure going to be getting the smaller of all of the turkeys I can find.”

That’s the case for many families this Thanksgiving across the Kansas City area. Especially after Mayor Quinton Lucas announced new COVID public health guidelines that restrict all indoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 people. With fewer people coming over for dinner, families are cutting back on larger turkeys.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Turkey Market News Report published last week found that the demand for Thanksgiving 8-16 pound hens is moderate to good, while frozen 16-20 pound toms demand is light to moderate. Heavier sizes have light demand at best. 

Turkey cooler at Sun Fresh in Westport.
The turkey cooler at the Sun Fresh supermarket in Westport. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Farmers have noticed the shift in demand for smaller birds as well.

Kenny Barham of Barham Family Farms in Kearney, Missouri, sells 80-100 turkeys in a year. That number has not wavered this year, but he has had more people request smaller turkeys. So many people are asking for smaller birds that he won’t be able to meet the demand, and some people will have to take larger birds than they may want. 

“We’ve had a lot of people say they’re doing a smaller Thanksgiving with the virus,” Barham said. “They aren’t having these big dinners anymore, so they are liking these 10-pound birds.”

Barham noted that he has cut down his family’s celebration from 50 people to about 12.

The increase in demand for smaller birds meant that Barham didn’t have to feed them as long. Also due to the pandemic, Barham got his turkeys a week late, and had to send them to be processed a week early, making them smaller than normal. It all turned out to be a blessing in disguise since the demand for smaller birds has gone up.

John Vesecky of Vesecky Family Farms in Baldwin City, Kansas, has not seen a decreased demand from customers wanting to buy processed birds for their Thanksgiving feast. He has, however, sold fewer to The Merc Co+Op in Lawrence.

Last year, Vesecky sold 225 birds to The Merc. This year they bought 200. Even so, he expects to sell all 500 of his turkeys, and has made up for what he didn’t sell to the store by selling more heritage birds, which are more expensive than the kind typically found in grocery stores.

Butterball, one of the largest turkey producers in the country, predicts that families are going to have a lot of leftovers this Thanksgiving.

In a recent survey, Butterball found that 87% of Americans are planning to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, even if they have to have smaller gatherings. It found that the demand for turkey this year is the same if not greater than last year. It also found that about three-quarters of people will be buying a turkey the same size or larger than last year.

Those trends would appear to be showing turkey prices.

The USDA’s report found that the average price of frozen and fresh hens have jumped about 15 cents per pound in 2020 compared to 2019. Additionally, there are far fewer turkeys in cold storage holdings than last year. 

Turkey Prices Take Flight

Turkey price chart.
Turkey prices are higher than they have been in recent years. (Source: USDA)

Consumers have seen smaller turkeys fly off of the shelves too.

Jessica Klock usually travels to both her and her husband’s hometowns over the holiday. This year they will be staying home. The smallest turkey they could find was 14 pounds at HyVee. They decided to settle on the bird, worrying that if they went elsewhere they might be stuck with something even bigger.

They are planning on having plenty of leftovers.

Laura Ebbers is a professional pastry chef, and used to work in catering. A holiday centered around food is one she prepares for more than most. She goes all out with food presentations for her guests, which typically includes her family from Chicago. The gathering has been a tradition for her since she moved to Kansas City five years ago.

This year, she will be cutting down from a 15-dish meal to a simpler meal serving just five family members. Like many others, it will not be a typical Thanksgiving.

“I’m sure everyone will be glad to be healthy and together,” Ebbers said. “But as someone who takes the pomp and circumstance of a good meal very seriously, I feel lonely in the lack of commotion around this time.

“It doesn’t really feel like November and the beginning of the holidays.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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