This year's Thanksgiving turkey will cost you more. Here's why

Washington farmers avoided a bird flu outbreak, but rising supply costs will hit home cooks.

Turkeys gathering at Windy N Ranch

Turkeys gather inside a trailer at Windy N Ranch outside of Ellensburg on Nov. 19, 2022. The farm raised 135 heritage turkeys this season to be sold directly to customers from across the state and beyond, who are willing to pay a higher price for organically and sustainably raised birds. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released some bad news: An avian flu outbreak had stricken the poultry sector, including turkeys. 

But the report provided a tidbit of hope: “USDA projects turkey production to rebound close to previous year levels by the fourth quarter, which includes the Thanksgiving holiday. 

USDA turned out to be correct: The hundreds of turkeys that Hank’s Harvest Foods preordered about eight months ago have been coming in as scheduled recently. Customers at the independent grocery store in Twisp could choose from a wide array, from 12 to 26 pounds. 

“We got everything we ordered,” said owner Hank Konrad. 

Indeed, while Washington State too was struck with an outbreak of avian — or bird — flu, most residents should be able to get the popular Thanksgiving bird for their holiday dinners. It will still cost more, however, compared to past years due to the rising costs of materials needed to raise turkeys, such as fuel and feed.  

All reported cases of avian flu have been in small to medium backyard flocks, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture. The flu hasn’t stricken small turkey producers in Washington, such as Windy N Ranch in Ellensburg. 

The producer raises organic certified and heritage-breed turkeys and sells them direct to customers who hail from all over the state and even Idaho. Many drive to the ranch to pick up their bird of choice. 

“The sales have been good,” said owner Greg Newhall. “Our supply has been good.”

Bradley Newhall and his 9-year-old daughter Lenora look into a trailer filled with heritage turkeys at Windy N Ranch outside of Ellensburg, Nov. 19, 2022. The turkeys will stay in the trailer until they are processed for customers the following day. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Left: The Newhall’s 135 heritage-breed turkeys are raised primarily outside under this netting at Windy N Ranch outside of Ellensburg before they are processed for customers in advance of Thanksgiving. Some of the enclosure collapsed in a recent windstorm. Right: Heritage turkeys spend the night in a trailer before being processed for customers the following day. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Higher costs 

Americans generally will pay more for their Thanksgiving dinner this year, according to the latest American Farm Bureau Foundation survey

The federation anticipated that Americans would pay $64.05 total for a Thanksgiving dinner that feeds 10 people, a 20% increase from the 2021 average of $53.31. 

The survey notes that the bird flu outbreak may cause temporary shortages in some regions of the U.S., but not to the point where large numbers of shoppers would be unable to find and purchase a turkey. 

The report notes, however, that shoppers should see some cost relief as grocery stores typically offer the birds at “sharply lower prices” in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Stores generally are willing to make little to no profit on a bird to entice shoppers to spend in other areas. 

QFC, the Puget Sound grocery chain owned by Kroger Inc., is offering turkey for 99 cents a pound with a $25 purchase. The store also has a “zero-compromise guide” to making a Thanksgiving meal for 10 for $50 or $5 per person. 

“We do not expect any issues providing customers with the turkeys they are looking for at a competitive price,” said QFC spokeswoman Tiffany Sanders.

Heritage turkeys are typically smaller than your average grocery store Butterball, but more customers are turning to these locally sourced options because of sustainability and better taste. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Over in Twisp, Hank’s Harvest Foods priced its turkeys at $1.59 per pound, the same as last year, even though the wholesale price went up, said Konrad, who has owned the grocery store for several decades. 

“We’re definitely not making any money,” he said.  “It’s just something stores do. Everybody tries to be aggressive on price.”

Still, USDA data indicates customers will likely pay more than a few years ago. 

The average price nationwide for a frozen turkey was $0.99 per pound as of Friday when the latest USDA turkey retail report was released. The report notes that 86% of retailers offered promotional prices. Still, even with promotional prices, it’s above the $0.93 per pound average during the same period a year ago.

Windy N Ranch, a small farm that raises cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals, sits on a bluff outside of Ellensburg, Nov. 19, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Alternatives to grocery-store turkey 

While most will turn to grocery stores for their birds, others opt for birds grown in-state. Here, turkey growers are small operations rather than the large producers that supply grocery stores. 

Some sell directly to consumers, while others work with suppliers specializing in locally and regionally produced items.  

Preservation Meat Collective, a Seattle-based supplier, paid about 30% more for the approximately 750 turkeys it procured from small producers throughout the state, said Sean So, the company’s president and co-owner. 

So said that extra costs would pass down to the retailers and restaurants that purchase turkeys from his company and eventually to customers. 

However, customers who purchase these turkeys are used to paying a lot more: upward of $7 to $14 per pound. 

To these turkey customers, price is less of a factor than whether the bird they are preparing for their dinners is grown sustainably and, more important, tastes better. 

These small regional growers focus on heritage-breed turkeys—ones indigenous to wild flocks from North America. Such breeds tend to produce smaller turkeys that are heavier on dark meat, said Newhall, owner of Windy N Ranch. 

The 135 turkeys Windy N Ranch produce are all heritage breeds, which mate naturally.  

Such turkeys cost more, about $14 a pound. But some people are willing to pay more for locally produced turkey, Newhall said. Customers place orders as far as a year in advance, and the ranch sells out. 

“That’s our niche as a small farm,” he said.

Bradley Newhall, son of farm owner Greg Newhall, hugs his Great Pyrenees Otto at Windy N Ranch next to a trailer full of live turkeys that will be processed at the farm the following day. The small farm, just outside of Ellensburg, mainly sells directly to individual customers across the state. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Heritage breeds aren’t for everyone, however. Preservation Meat Collective said some customers still want a larger turkey and one that offers more white meat, So said. 

As a result, the supplier focuses on turkeys that aren’t heritage breeds but are certified organic or are grown with sustainable methods, such as turkeys that are free-range or fed with diets free of grain or soy. 

An additional challenge this year: Some growers the collective previously worked with were unable to supply turkeys due to a shortage of  WSDA-licensed meat processors. As a result, Preservation Meat Collective procured about half as many turkeys as a year ago.  

But for So, meeting customers’ expectation to get a bird produced locally, or at least regionally, overrides maintaining a particular volume. “If I don’t get Washington turkey, I don’t have turkey to sell,” he said. 

The supplier maintains other high standards that add to the cost of its turkeys. For one, the turkeys that Preservation Meat Collective has been delivering to butcher shops and restaurants in the past few days have been processed within the previous seven days. 

That’s beyond the definition of what USDA deems fresh: Any turkey, even one in cold storage, that has never been chilled below 26 F. The USDA doesn’t set a time limit on fresh turkeys beyond its usual safety standards. 

“We operate at a high-level transparency, making sure customers understand what they are getting,” So said.

A turkey feather casts a shadow in the afternoon sun at Windy N Ranch outside of Ellensburg, Nov. 19, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Most small Washington turkey producers have managed to avoid the avian flu outbreak announced by the USDA earlier this year. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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