My belt is already getting tighter just thinking about the impending feast this Thursday. This Holiday, like most of human celebration, is bathed in food and family, and beyond the noise of the political season and the comatose football viewing that tends to bookend my personal Holiday weekend, I am truly excited to eat some amazing home cooked food.
The turkey is at the centerpiece of this epic annual feast and the gobbler can provide a lot of insights into the workings of our food system here in the United States. The American Farm Bureau Federation just released its annual Thanksgiving price survey putting the average price of turkey at about $1.42 a pound*. This is the average and I have seen some turkey at the store for under a dollar per pound. When I see this I wonder how it can it be this cheap to feed and care for an animal for 4 months and only charge a dollar a pound?
This opens up a whole set of variables at play here and I am going to address a few of them in a neutral and objective matter. First and foremost our food scientists have managed to breed a turkey that can eat and grow like no others before it. The white broad-breasted turkey is the most common domesticated turkey and under current variables and growing conditions it can reach mature weights at about 4 months. Most of this increase has been gained through selective breeding over the last 30 years. To put these weights in perspective consider that the average weight of live market turkeys was 20 pounds in 1986, and by 2012 the average live weight was 30.8 pounds. These turkeys begin to have conformity issues if they are allowed to grow at this rate past 6 months and their health will degrade due to weight and leg problems. Another issue with these turkeys is that because of their size they are not able to naturally breed and must be artificially inseminated.
Below is a link to the Dirty Jobs episode where Mike tries his hand at the process.
The price per pound of turkey is also lowered because of federal government subsidies to corn and soy growers. These are the two of the most common ingredients in commercial turkey feed and cheaper feed means the finished product can be offered at a lower price. Beyond the subsidized feed, the industry has also made great strides in their packaging. Some producers claim that their turkeys can be stored frozen for up to two years if kept in the original packaging with most producers setting the bar at the more standard one year mark. This allows turkey to be sold cheaper because producers and warehousers can begin storing the frozen birds well before the holidays to get a head start on production.
The cost savings is not only related to the production model. The retail outlets see Thanksgiving as a huge boon and this is historically the busiest week of the year for groceries. The mark down is a direct result of this buying power as most consumers are not just going to buy a turkey but also potatoes, cranberry sauce, pies, beer and wine, and if you’re really lucky, ice cream. In order to get customers in the door, some stores will lower their cost of turkeys to below profit levels. This means that they are losing money on every turkey that they sell but they are able to make up for it with all the corollary items that are purchased at the same time.
So all of these factors make for a really cheap bird at thanksgiving and for most of the population that is a good thing. Some other folks who are concerned with deeper flavor characteristics, animal welfare, or antibiotic use issues will purchase their turkey from a local farm. These farms, organic or not, tend to raise heritage breed turkeys** that can take much longer to grow out then the typical broad breasted white breed. Granted, most of the feed consumed by these birds has also been subsidized by the government, they will ultimately consume roughly the double the amount of feed to make market weight. Beyond the grow out time, these turkeys may be more vulnerable to predation because of the farm’s infrastructure and experience. Most farmers grow out turkeys as part of their diversified model and therefore carry more risk than a facility that is only growing turkeys for commercial purposes. These heritage breed turkeys will typically be in the 5 dollar a pound range but some can command prices of over 10 dollars a pound depending on the feed and husbandry practices. The good news is that there is a turkey out there for every price range and health concern. Being a local producer I would always encourage others to shop locally and to get to know your local farmer. Who knows maybe the farmer will come to your thanksgiving and help you fight of that one weird uncle with the long finger nails who won’t stop talking about that time you dropped the hail Mary pass during the 1988 annual backyard turkey flag football game…or, at the very least, you’ll know exactly where your bird came from.