Turkey producers have a lot to gobble about this year
It's not uncommon to find free turkey giveaways in grocery stores during the holiday season, and this year, there'll be plenty of birds to go around for everyone, California poultry farmers say.
"It will be a good year for consumers," said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. "They're going to see turkeys all over the place. It's also a pretty good year for producers. Prices are good this year again. The industry as a whole hasn't overproduced, which is good."
Mattos said he expects 2006's turkey production in California will be similar to last year—about 16 million head, up from 14.9 million in 2005 and 15.7 million in 2004. The average price received by producers also remains strong—about 45 cents per pound this year, compared to 43 cents in 2005 and 41 cents in 2004.
That consumers are getting good deals on their holiday birds has virtually no bearing on what many California producers are paid for raising them, said Ken Mitchell, a Sacramento County producer who raises turkeys for Foster Farms. As with most farmers who grow by contract, his price was settled long before Thanksgiving.
"I get a kick out of everybody saying, 'Wow, the turkey market must be pretty bad; you guys are giving birds away at the grocery store,'" said Mitchell.
Quite the contrary, he said. From a marketing standpoint, the Thanksgiving turkey has much in common with music CDs. They're considered a loss leader, Mitchell explained. Grocery stores sell turkeys at a loss to lure customers into the store where they are likely to spend money on other items.
"You think you got the turkey for free but actually, you paid for cranberries at 100 percent of the value," said Mitchell.
U.S. turkey production has nearly tripled since 1970 as more consumers eat turkey year-round, according to the National Turkey Federation. Turkey products are now marketed in a variety of ways, developing the turkey sector from a single-product, holiday-oriented business to a diversified year-round enterprise.
In 2004, U.S. consumption of turkey was 17.1 pounds per person, compared to 8.3 pounds in 1975, according to the National Turkey Federation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, turkey consumption has remained unchanged during the last decade at about 17 pounds to 18 pounds per capita.
"Consumers eat more turkey other times of the year than they do during holidays now, and most of it is eaten in turkey sandwiches," said Mattos.
He also noted that California consumers eat more turkey than any other state, more than 600 million pounds per year, or about an average of 21 pounds per person.
To meet consumer demand during the off-holiday season, producers are now raising larger birds, said Mitchell. Today, processing plants prefer to use 45-pound turkeys for cut-up, while smaller, more consumer-friendly whole-body turkeys are grown specifically for the holiday season.
The turkey sector's trend toward bigger birds has in turn created a niche market for specialty growers such as Tim Diestel, who raises heirloom breeds that are often no more than eight pounds when fully grown.
"The turkeys today, you have to butcher them early in order to get those weights," he said. "But it gives you more bone. It's a bigger carcass, and it doesn't yield as well. They're really not designed for that. So what we do is we have turkeys that truly are designed for the whole-body bag. We just grow them special for the holidays."
His organically grown, free-range turkeys are fed a vegetarian diet of soybeans and grains and raised two months longer than other conventional turkeys, he said. Heirloom breeds such as the heritage turkeys, which have been making a comeback in recent years, take even longer to grow.
Heritage turkeys date back to the 1920s and 1930s. They're typically about three-quarters of the size of a large white turkey and have a deeper flavor, he said.
"When people say 'Gee, I wish we could get a turkey like the one that Grandma used to have,' well that's it," Diestel said of the heritage turkey. "There's not a lot of volume in them, but they're fun and people like to talk about them, and there's been a lot of interest in that product this year."
Diestel Family Turkey Ranch currently grows about 200,000 turkeys annually and does the majority of its business during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. About 20 percent to 25 percent of the farm's turkeys are regular white birds used for cut-up meat.
In 2005, California ranked seventh among the nation's top turkey-producing states. The majority of the state's turkey production is in the San Joaquin Valley, with Fresno County producing 25.2 percent; Merced County producing 24.2 percent; Kings County producing 18.7 percent; Stanislaus County producing 16.1 percent; and Tulare County producing 14.9 percent.
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.