No shortage of ‘big birds’–or leftovers–this holiday season, with over-supply of plus-size turkeys

Free Thanksgiving turkeys were delivered last week to veterans, cops and ambulance workers by Pelican Rapids American Legion Post 17 volunteers.

Recipients needed to be prepared: 

1) They needed an extra cubic foot or two in the freezer or refrigerator.

2) They needed a big appetite; plus a fondness for leftovers. 

3) Hopefully, they ate their Wheaties—because tossing around turkeys the size of a straw bale demands some energy.

Legionnaires Ben Woessner and Phil Stotesbery had genuine physical work-outs when they delivered 62 turkeys. The Pelican Legion Post has distributed turkeys, donated by West Central Turkeys–Jennie-O, for a number of years. It has become an annual tradition. 

What was different this year from most past seasons, was the shear size. With all of the frozen birds at nearly 22 pounds, it was like hauling frozen meteorites for Woessner and Stotesbery. Most years, the Legion donates turkeys averaging about 15 pounds. 

As it turns out, the size of the turkeys has a “back story” with a national twist—and a COVID-19 pandemic angle. 

“There just aren’t enough small birds,” said John Gorton, lifelong Pelican Rapids turkey man. “There has been more demand for smaller birds…and industry is having a hard time satisfying customer orders.”

When Thanksgiving comes around, and the newspaper needs to “talk turkey,” we try to catch up with local turkey pros. Gorton is one of them. Third generation in the business, Gorton is also a past president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, which currently represents about 450 farmers across the state. 

Bottom line for consumers and families: Your Thanksgiving turkey is likely to be heftier; and leftovers abundant. 

COVID-19 outbreak contributed to a number of plant shutdowns in the upper midwest. These were widely publicized back in spring and early summer, 2020. 

“It has a huge impact, even being closed for a couple days,” said Gorton, noting that the Melrose Jennie-O plant was locked down for a full week. Even at those plants that stayed in operation continuously, the pandemic contributed to processing reduction. 

“So, we’re sitting with turkeys that are getting bigger and bigger,” said Gorton. “It has a huge snowball effect.” 

From turkey barn to market to Thanksgiving table, the system is designed to “run tight,” said Gorton. “Everything is scheduled a year in advance.” 

So, COVID-induced production cutbacks meant the turkeys were getting fatter, and the local grocer, such as Larry’s Super Market in Pelican Rapids, finds an over-supply of bigger turkeys on the market. 

That is a broad brush stroke and over-simplification of the situation—as summarized by a recovering city boy who could hardly distinguish between a turkey hen and a rooster. But, basically, you get the picture. 

Compounding the peculiar market condition is the simple fact that families are generally smaller. “We’re not cooking a big bird to serve 35 people any more,” said Gorton. Combine that long-evolving trend with the current COVID realities of smaller, more intimate holiday gatherings—and the industry experiences an even stronger demand for smaller turkeys. 

Similar scenarios are “echoed” in the COVID-era beef and pork industries, noted Gorton. Plant shut downs have also had a heavy impact on hog and cattle processing. 

On a more somber note, this Thanksgiving and holiday season comes with challenges—very close to home. Our local, independent processing operation, Heart O’ Lakes Quality Meats, has shut down due to COVID-related staffing issues. Pelican’s largest commercial employer, the West Central Turkeys plant, is bracing for what appears to be an Otter Tail County and regional spike in COVID testing and transmission. 

Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to express our thanks to all those “essential” folks in the “food chain” from field, to feedlot, to processing plant, to transport…right down to the local grocery worker.