A Disrupted Thanksgiving Leaves the Turkey Business Guessing

The calculations are tricky. Contracts to buy the baby turkeys called poults are often written a year in advance, and growing those poults to the proper size for the market takes months. Even if farmers wanted to raise smaller turkeys, it’s not that easy. Genetics, coupled with economically driven feed formulas, produce birds that mature at a predetermined size in a set amount of time.

“It’s not an industry in which you can quickly pivot,” said John Peterson, whose family has owned the 140-acre Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minn., for 80 years. “For us to have any meaningful impact on changing anything for Thanksgiving, those decisions had to be made in March or April.”

Mr. Peterson is president of the turkey research and promotion council for Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey-producing state. About a quarter of the 160,000 turkeys he will grow this year will be sold for the holidays. He is doing what he can to keep the turkeys small, like slaughtering some earlier than he might in a normal year.

Cody Hopkins runs a livestock cooperative of 40 farms mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri that will ship out about 3,000 broad-breasted whites — by far the most common American breed — that have been raised on pasture. He is making similar tweaks to his flock.

Because the cooperative sells directly to families and isn’t locked into a supermarket chain’s schedule, farmers have been able to move processing timelines in an attempt to produce smaller birds, he said. The co-op also is also planning to sell more turkey wings and breasts.

“We’re talking about doing some bigger chickens, too, to give people options,” Mr. Hopkins said.

The pivot is harder for the nation’s largest producers of whole turkeys, who are wrestling with both the health and the economic realities of Covid-19. The virus charged through some poultry packing plants at alarming rates, forcing temporary closings and a call for improved working conditions.

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