Turkey growers expect strong holiday demand

Issue Date: November 14, 2018
By Ching Lee
Turkeys flock inside a barn at Diestel Family Ranch in Tuolumne County.
Photo/Diestel family

For this Thanksgiving at least, supplies of fresh, California-grown turkeys should be similar to the last several years—which is to say there are limited quantities, and shoppers who want them should act fast and reserve them ahead of time.

California turkey farmers produce only about 30 to 35 percent of the holiday turkeys sold this time of year and they usually sell out of them, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. Though turkeys are produced and sold year-round in the state, he noted that whole-body turkeys become scarce by the end of the holiday season.

"Our numbers are low," Mattos said. "That's why our turkeys are popular, because people want California-grown and fresh, and there's not a lot of them. As far as the Thanksgiving bird, this is the time to think about it, particularly if you want a fresh one."

California turkey production has been hovering at around 11 million to 11.5 million birds since 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Production peaked at 31.5 million in 1990.

Mattos said production may go up slightly this year to about 12 million birds. That would happen even though one turkey processor plans to close. Zacky Farms, which has plants in Fresno and Stockton, has been winding down its production as it plans to cease operation completely in January. Because the company will stay in business through Thanksgiving, Mattos said the Zacky brand will still be out there, though he noted the company produced only "a few thousand birds towards the end."

Mattos said turkey growers largely described good growing conditions this year, which helped production.

"I don't see an overproduction in California right now," he said. "Feed prices are good, and that's helping the industry a little bit. If we can avoid major diseases, it should be a good year."

As to longer-term impacts of the Zacky closure, Mattos said he doesn't foresee overall California turkey production changing too drastically, as the state's remaining producers will likely acquire the Zacky ranches and fill the void.

Pitman Farms in Fresno County, he said, has been expanding and earlier this year bought Norbest, a turkey growing and processing operation in Utah.

"There's huge demand for our chickens and our turkeys," said Mary Pitman, whose company brand—Mary's—carries her name. "Our biggest problem is producing enough chickens and turkeys. We've totally maxed out our space. That's why we bought Norbest—so we can do some of that in Utah. We're always looking for farms."

Because announcement of Zacky's closure came so recently, Pitman said she doesn't know how it will affect Pitman Farms. She expressed sadness for Zacky's departure, noting her family nearly suffered a similar fate in 2000, but turned business around by producing free-range turkeys and later branching out into organic and heritage birds.

Turkey farmer Heidi Diestel, whose family produces conventional, organic, pasture-raised and a variety of heirloom breeds in Tuolumne County, said finding capacity to raise enough turkeys to meet rising demand has always been "a big puzzle with a lot of management behind it."

"Everything has different pressures on the space requirements," she said. "So far, we've been continuing to make it happen."

With Zacky's closure, Diestel said there may be some opportunities for her family to serve new customers, though it will depend on "what attributes they're looking for and how willing they are to pay for those attributes." Turkey production in other states also will help bridge the gap, she added.

"Major producers have made movement outside the state to find production, where we are a niche producer, so naturally we're going to have quite a small piece of the puzzle," she said. "There is a lot being produced in other states; that's where the more rapid growth in turkey production is happening."

Unlike top turkey-producing states such as Minnesota, North Carolina and Arkansas, which have many contract growers, most California turkeys are raised on ranches owned by companies such as Foster Farms, Mattos said. The state's few contract growers tend to be larger ranches and have been doing it a long time, he added.

Sacramento County turkey farmer Ken Mitchell said he's probably one of five or six contract growers left producing for Foster Farms, which now has more company-owned ranches. He described his own ranch as being at capacity.

"It's not that we've decreased a lot of ranches (in the state)," he said. "We've decreased ownership of ranches, leasing of ranches and a few guys have completely gotten out; they've gone to other things or other companies. There's only a few of us left."

As a contract grower who used to produce for Zacky but now raises birds for Pitman, Madera County turkey farmer Tom Fry describes himself as "a dying breed." He said the state's turkey ranches are "pretty much at capacity" and the only way to increase production is to buy more land and build more facilities. At 65, he said he's not interested in expanding his ranch because of the expense involved.

Though demand for Pitman's products is up, Fry said the cost of growing birds in California continues to rise and it can be done cheaper in other states. With his production at status quo, he said he will continue growing turkeys for as long as Pitman wants him to.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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