Demand stays strong for specialty turkeys
By Ching Lee
Sonoma County turkey farmer Willie Benedetti, who sells more than 11,000 of his free-range and organic Willie Bird turkeys for Thanksgiving, stands with turkeys that will be marketed for the Christmas holiday.
Sales of California specialty turkeys, such as these 10-week-old, free-range toms from Willie Bird ranch in Sonoma County, continue to be strong, according to producers who raise for that market.
With feed costs dropping, California turkey farmers express optimism about their business outlook, and those who produce specialty birds such as organic turkeys say they're seeing stronger demand for their products.
"Organic sales are up," said David Pitman, who operates Fresno County-based Pitman Family Farms, which produces organic, free-range and heritage turkeys.
He noted while sales of all his specialty products have improved, organic sales have increased much more. Retailers typically place their orders from February to April.
Even though feed prices have come down recently, Pitman said they were high for most of the year, leading him to raise prices on his products.
"We struggled the year before with extremely high feed prices and couldn't cover all of our costs," he said. "So we explained the situation, and most retailers were very supportive (of the price increase)."
Sonoma County producer Willie Benedetti, whose free-range and organic Willie Bird turkeys sell for $75 to $185, depending on the size, said he has raised his prices by 40 cents a pound in the last two years due to soaring corn and soybean costs, but his sales have not backed down.
"It's a high price, but people don't balk much," he said. "They're going to eat turkey at Thanksgiving, even though the price is higher than it's ever been. People pay more for a tank of gas than they do for a Willie Bird."
He said one trend that has changed is consumers are no longer eating as much turkey during the Christmas holiday, which used to make up 40 percent of his holiday turkey sales, with 60 percent for Thanksgiving. These days, the breakdown is more like 85 percent for Thanksgiving and 15 percent for Christmas, Benedetti said.
"People have a lot more choices—going out to eat, prime rib, lobster, ham. But Thanksgiving, we're still in control," he said.
Having raised prices on its products last year, Diestel Turkey Ranch in Tuolumne County is keeping them the same this year, said Jason Diestel. The farm did increase production of its line of specialty turkeys, including organic, pasture-raised and heirloom breeds. But Diestel said with the current overall short supply of niche-market turkeys, the farm could have increased its bird numbers even more to meet demand.
"We were being conservative because of all the uncertainty in the market," he said. "We're very happy to see that commodity prices are changing in our favor, although it's too late to affect our cost for this year."
Production and sales of Diestel's specialty turkeys still have not returned to their pre-recession levels, he noted, but if feed costs stay low, consumers might see turkey prices drop next year, and lower prices could drive more of them to consider paying extra for the specialty product, he added.
Terry Branigan, who produces free-range turkeys in Yolo County, said his prices have remained at $3.99 a pound for the last five years, even though feed costs—which account for about 70 percent of his production costs—have skyrocketed during that time. He said he's been unwilling to raise his prices for fear it would adversely affect his sales, which have eroded since the recession, particularly those from companies that used to make big orders during the holidays for employee giveaways.
"I'm not sure that (business) will ever come back," he said. "We're starting to show a small increase (in sales) each year, so that's encouraging."
Branigan raises about 18,000 to 20,000 birds a year and bases his production on how well he did the year before. He typically won't know his sales numbers until a few days before Thanksgiving, when retailers begin placing their orders and individual consumer sales are made on the farm.
"I'm hoping for maybe a 1 or 2 percent increase from what we did last year," he said. "With us, if you could lower our feed (cost) and have a small increase in sales, that's huge."
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said consumers should not see much fluctuation in turkey prices this year.
U.S. turkey production this year is estimated at 242 million head, with 13 million head coming from California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's compared to 253.5 million U.S. turkeys and 15.5 million California turkeys produced in 2012. The Golden State ranks No. 7 in U.S. production, with Minnesota at the top.
Since California turkey farmers supply only 40 percent of the state's market, Mattos said consumers who want to buy a fresh, California-grown turkey should let their supermarket know and reserve it. He said specialty birds are probably 10 percent to 15 percent of the state's market.
"There'll be a decent supply of frozen turkeys, because those come from all over the U.S., but the fresh ones will be the hardest to find," he said.
For Sacramento County producer Ken Mitchell, who grows turkeys on contract for Foster Farms, this time of year is "a big, stressful chess game" as the company tries to fill its orders and process all the birds from the different ranches according to sizes and weight. The birds he raised for the Thanksgiving holiday left for the processing plant two weeks ago, he noted.
He said although year-round demand for turkey has been unchanged, moderation in feed cost has been positive for producers this year—and for next year's outlook.
"This year was probably one of my better years in terms of my weights, my performance," he said. "We had beautiful weather. Production has been good. I've done well this year."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.