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Locavore appetite, smaller gatherings drive record Colorado turkey sales despite coronavirus

Turkey producers of all sizes have seen increased demand this Thanksgiving, especially for smaller birds

A group of wild turkeys roam Western Colorado. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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At Jodar Farms near Fort Collins, owner Aaron Rice has been cutting turkeys in half.

The farm, which is in its 11th season, has seen record demand this year for turkeys, especially for those on the smaller side. Rice raised about the same number of turkeys as he did last year, but didn’t anticipate how the pandemic would impact his sales. 

Health officials are warning people not to celebrate the holiday with other households to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, more households are looking to buy a bird, though a smaller one than previous years to suit fewer diners. 

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Rice’s turkey sales compared to previous years will be about the same, but he’s selling the birds over 25 pounds in two separate pieces, with one breast and one thigh apiece.

“Our birds grow out to a certain size, and we can’t really control how they grow all that much, so we ended up with a lot of turkeys that were a little bit bigger than what most people were needing for their gatherings,” Rice said.

Rice’s farm isn’t alone. Demand for turkeys is up significantly from years past. An analysis from research firm IRI found that nationally, turkey sales have increased almost 20%, with whole birds up 28% compared with last year.

“Our birds grow out to a certain size, and we can’t really control how they grow all that much, so we ended up with a lot of turkeys that were a little bit bigger than what most people were needing for their gatherings,” Rice said.

Large producers have also experienced record seasonal sales. Mary’s Turkeys, one of the biggest suppliers nationwide for turkeys designated as organic, heritage or non-GMO, is based in California and can be found in Natural Grocers stores in Colorado and other states. Owner and founder Mary Pitman said she’s had to buy multiple new processing machines this season and process tens of thousands of extra birds in the past few weeks to keep up.

“We’re crazy busy trying to get everything out,” Pitman said. “We’re just grateful to still be in business, and grateful to still have a job, especially in these times.”

Though many restaurants are closed on Thanksgiving, others are pivoting to offer take-home turkey dinners. For suppliers like Colorado-based Red Bird Farms, that’s meant sales are up across the board, not just for grocery stores. Josh Deaner, director of food services, told The Colorado Sun in an email that for restaurants and grocery stores that did not reserve extra turkeys this year, it’s been tough to find more.

The banner sales year started in the spring for Indian Ridge Farm, on Colorado’s Western Slope near Norwood. The farm raises a variety of meats as well as vegetables. Owner Barclay Daranyi said she saw roughly four times the turkey demand this year compared with previous years.

MORE: Food swaps, a brother who can’t taste and more stories of a coronavirus Thanksgiving in Colorado

“We are sold out sooner than we’ve ever been sold out of almost any of our products,” Daranyi said last week.

Daranyi attributes the increased demand to concerns about food security. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Daranyi said customers were concerned when they could go to the store and where their food was coming from.

Indian Ridge Farm co-founder Barclay Daranyi stands for a portrait on her farm near Norwood Colorado. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The majority of the farm’s sales this year come from CSAs — short for community-supported agriculture, a membership model for people to buy directly from food producers. Indian Ridge had almost triple the number of CSA members compared with previous years.

“To have a CSA and know where it’s being grown and sign up for a regular delivery every week … was a big draw,” Daranyi said.

If there’s one downside to this season, it’s something out of farmers’ control: the U.S. Postal Service. Due to increased online ordering, understaffing and administrative changes, hundreds of baby birds died in transit this year. 

Daranyi said her farm received all of its turkey chicks safely in one batch, but lost more broiler chicken chicks than in a normal year. Farms can get refunds for chicks that are dead on arrival, but it still chips into their revenue in the long run.

“We really felt it,” Daranyi said.

Turkeys are a less financially certain product for farmers than other meats, given the seasonality in their demand, and while this year has been a boon, Daranyi isn’t ready to commit to raising more next year. Who knows what will happen between now and then?

“Whether this trend continues into next year and the year after that, I don’t know,” she said.

If nothing else, perhaps the interest in locally sourced food will continue beyond the pandemic. Rice said that despite having done no marketing at all this year, Jodar Farms has not only sold most of its turkeys, it’s seen significant interest in other meats as well. 

“We raise a turkey that’s outside, free range and raised on pasture,” Rice said. “With COVID and the increased concern with eating healthy food and eating food that is healthy for your immune system … I think there are more and more people that are starting to understand the benefits of allowing animals to be out on grass and forage and live a healthy life.”

Rising Sun