by Wynston Estis, Assistant Store Manager
One of my few remaining buying responsibilities is to order the turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas; I’ve been doing this since ’95, I think. After this amount of time you’d think it would be as easy as falling out of bed, but every year brings a new set of challenges. In addition to just anticipating changes in our market (like the closing of some neighborhood grocery stores last year), this year brings the concern of dramatic increases in production costs. The average lifespan of a turkey is somewhere near 20 weeks—some a little more and some a little less time, depending upon various factors. Last year we had already seen a pretty big increase in grain prices due to drought conditions in the country’s “Grain Belt.” Grain is the preferred food source for our turkey producers and the prices continues to be higher than in years past. To add insult to injury, the issue of fuel cost, the hot topic around the country’s water coolers, has seen some extreme increases recently.
Looking at the cost of gasoline at the pump it’s hard to believe that in October of 2003 a gallon of gas was about $1.50; now it’s near $3.00 a gallon, and the price is headed up as we enter the winter months, when natural gas is in higher demand for heating homes and businesses. Our farmers are conservation-minded people to begin with, but these costs are passed on to them first in the expense of their supplies. Then there is the direct expense of fueling the machines required to manage a farm. Between the fuel and grain costs, many of the farmers we work with have had to raise the prices of their turkeys 25% over last year. This puts the cost to us over $3 per pound! To offer the small, locally produced turkey we would also have to ask for more than $3 per pound.Given that the average turkey size is between 16 and 20 pounds, we were getting into the range of just the turkey ringing up as a $70 item. Time to make some tough decisions.
Of course local and organic is still where our heart is, but it appears that the best way to support local producers this year was for us to get out of the middle of the equation. By not adding our cost to the overall price, what local turkeys there are will be at least a little more affordable. We had this conversation back at the beginning of the year, so the farmers that we have worked with in the past were aware of our concern that the cost of this poultry was more than we thought we could support. We have called all of our local suppliers in the last few days to find out if they had any birds they were still trying to place. Most of them had cut back on the size of their flocks and all of the farmers that choose to raise turkeys had already placed them.
So, this year we are offering an old favorite, Bell & Evans brand, an excellent turkey. This is fresh turkey that has not been stored below 26º, and has a fantastic reputation as a tasty bird. The breed is Nicholas White, which is the standard breed for the turkey industry. B&E turkeys are not treated with antibiotics or hormones and are raised on a grain-based diet, with no animal by-products used as a source of protein. They are free to roam, which indicates that they can move about within an enclosed structure.
New this year is a fresh organic turkey from Eberly. This company has been around since the forties, and they have such an outstanding reputation for free-range organic birds that even the folks in New York City, with all their fancy ways, think it is some of the best turkey they’ve tasted. In the last ten years, The New York Times has awarded this turkey several times for best flavor. Actually, you may have already eaten some of this turkey; they have been supplying Walnut Acres with poultry since the eighties for their soups.
Rounding out our offerings will be a turkey from Organic Valley that is delivered frozen, although even frozen, this is high-quality turkey. The advantage of the frozen bird is that we can get it for you anytime in the month of November, so if you have more than one dinner to attend or host, this option can offer some flexibility. If you need to order this one for a special date other than a few days before the holiday, make sure to let us know when you are reserving it. And remember to pick up this bird in enough time to properly thaw it; about three days in the refrigerator will do.
Fall and harvest time is one of the most fun times of the year in Wisconsin: the anticipation of first snowfall, lots of football season left to enjoy, and it’s too cold to be outside working, so relaxing is a popular pastime. Selecting the turkey is also one of the rituals that mark this season for many folks. (In my position at the Co-op, it’s more of a late summer thing for me.) You have a lot of options to think about, but you can’t make a bad choice so enjoy.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.