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Missouri turkey farmers fight inflation and pestilence to deliver birds for Thanksgiving

A farmer holding a turkey in the middle of a flock of the birds.
Frank Morris
Nick Heisler, with Buttonwood Farm holds a tom turkey ready for Thanksgiving

If you’re having turkey for Thanksgiving you’re likely paying more than ever before for the bird. But you might be thankful you got one at all. Turkey producers had to run a gauntlet of pestilence and inflation to provide your Thanksgiving protein this year.

This has been one lousy year for raising that Thanksgiving bird. Bad enough that avian flu tore through turkey flocks with a killer virus. Tougher yet when growers had to destroy their birds by the millions to keep that flu in check.

Then there are all the other, more prosaic, things that kept pushing up the cost of what it takes to get that stout, juicy poultry on your table.

“This has been a really tough year for turkey,” said Nick Heisler, who works for Buttonwood Farm, a regional chicken and turkey grower in central Missouri. “It’s probably one of the toughest as far as keeping a turkey healthy, and also alive.”

Bird flu took out more than 6 million turkeys, cutting U.S. production by about 3%. The cost of feeding and processing the rest skyrocketed.

“Everywhere we look, whether it’s labor in the plant, whether it’s the cost of utilities. The cost of grain is very high and that’s a big component of the overall price of turkey,” said Tom Windish, who oversees turkey production at Cargill, a Wichita-based meat processor.

Windish said feed accounts for up to 80% of the cost of raising a turkey. And feed is way up.

The corn and soybeans turkeys eat are selling at near-record highs this year. Diesel fuel is close to double what it cost this time last year. Growers also use a lot of diesel trucking live birds, frozen birds, and all that grain that turkeys eat.

All that shows up in the price of turkey. Turkey breast is double what it cost last year. Whole turkeys are up more than 20%. It’s making some shoppers rethink their Thanksgiving traditions.

“It used to be real big. It’s going to be very small this year, because of costs,” Quiana Williams said while shopping at a Sun Fresh grocery store in Kansas City.

Williams says she’s inviting just her parents and son for the holiday meal. Normally, she’d put out a spread for more than a dozen people. And she says that turkey may not be on the menu.

“It depends on cost,” she said. “I would like to have Turkey, but I can settle for chicken.”

She may not have to settle, because the full price of turkey isn’t likely to show up at the store. Most retailers eat much of the added cost. Turkey is the classic loss leader. Retailers use sales on turkey to lure lucrative holiday shoppers into their stores.

“They might not make any margin or profit on selling a turkey, but if they get a shopper to come and buy the rest of their feast items and ingredients, then it might be worth it,” said Emily Moquin, a food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult.

Moquin said most of the shoppers she surveyed say turkey is a “non-negotiable” item for Thanksgiving. Most expect to buy their bird on sale or save a little by switching to a store brand. Moquin says that a lot of them are cutting their grocery bills by just buying less food.

But, come Thanksgiving, most plan to be eating turkey, even if they have to skimp a little on the gravy.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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