Torrie Bolton knows well when Thanksgiving season begins.
“Year after year, when everyone turns the calendar and sees Nov. 1, that’s when the orders really start coming in,” she says.
Bolton manages her family farm’s storefront, Bolton’s Farm Market, which sells about 5,000 fresh turkeys every November — each incubated, hatched, and raised on the Bucks County farm — alongside homemade stuffing, pies, and pints of gravy and cranberry relish.
Will a pandemic-era Thanksgiving be any different?
As families work out plans for the approaching holiday — will it be outdoors? will attendees be tested? will it happen at all? — the area’s poultry purveyors are betting that turkey will still be on the table come Nov. 26.
“It’s such a bizarre year,” Bolton says, “I do think that some of these traditions are going to be kept just to have something normal.”
And although there’s national speculation that customers will want smaller birds, or perhaps just parts, only so much pivot is possible for turkey farmers.
“I had to get my flock before COVID started, so the birds were already here,” says George Rude Jr., general manager of Griggstown Farm in Princeton.
Rude raised about 500 bourbon red and 3,000 broad-breasted white turkeys from chicks starting in April and June, respectively. He ordered the poults in advance, based on last year’s sales.
As Thanksgiving preorders roll in to his website, Rude is noticing more customers reserving smaller birds. But on his side of things, “it’s a crapshoot, because you don’t know if this bird is going to fall on the 14-to-17- or the 18-to-22-pound range.” He staggers the arrival of the chicks in order to variegate their sizes, but environmental factors such as weather affect how much a turkey eats.
And, as Bolton says, “you can’t put a turkey on a diet. [If you want it fresh,] you can’t process it any earlier. It has to grow the amount of time it needs.”
Rude and other small farmers might have a slight advantage in that they offer heritage-breed turkeys, such as bourbon reds. These breeds put on weight much slower than the traditional broad-breasted white. The result, often, is a smaller bird.
Heritage-breed hens might be as small as seven pounds and max out around 10. A tom will be bigger and, given enough time, might even grow to 24 pounds or more, says Sloane Six of Quarry Hill Farm in Harleysville.
Six has raised heritage-breed turkeys for 10 years on her Montgomery County farm. “We’ve had palms, chocolates, Rio Grandes,” she says. This year, she raised 100 or so bourbon reds and broad-breasted bronzes. She estimates that 90% of the flock will see November. The remaining 10% fall victim to raccoons, foxes, and sometimes their own stupidity.
“Turkeys are challenging,” Six says. “The first three weeks of their life, we always joke that they want to do everything they can not to be on the planet.”
Rude echoes the sentiment. Of the 500 bourbon red chicks he started with, he expects to end up with 400 or 450 to sell.
That mortality rate and the expense of raising a free-ranging turkey over eight months translate to a higher-priced bird. Six’s turkeys go for $8.50 a pound. Rude’s bourbon reds, which always sell out, are priced at $9.90 a pound and range from 7- to 10-pound hens to 14- to 18-pound toms.
What do you get for that price? “Its dark meat is just to die for,” says Six.
Of course, most shoppers can’t and won’t opt for a heritage-breed turkey, and most won’t even buy their bird from a farm. So what can you expect at the supermarket?
Acme Markets orders its Thanksgiving turkeys in January, according to spokesperson Dana Ward. She advises those in search of a smaller bird to shop early — for everything, not just turkey. (The chain is already running a promotion for a free frozen turkey on purchases of $300 or more. Average bird size: 10 to 22 pounds.)
The week of Thanksgiving is typically the busiest time of year for grocers, who have already this year weathered stockpiling phases, shortages, and social-distancing shake-ups.
“Since March, just everything is topsy-turvy," says Jon Roesser, general manager of Weavers Way Co-op. “Thanksgiving is the big question mark.”
To gauge what its customers might do differently, Weavers Way sent a survey to its 9,000-some members in mid-October. While the replies indicated that Thanksgiving was still on, 70% of the roughly 2,000 respondents expressed interest in a turkey weighing 14 pounds or less. Fifty percent wanted a 10- to 12-pound bird.
“And that’s about as small as a turkey is going to get,” Roesser says.
“The big guys, the Butterballs of the world, they can slaughter turkeys whenever they want, and they can freeze them,” Roesser says. “But our birds are alive and kicking the week before Thanksgiving. And there are some things that the farmers can do to control the size of the birds, but there are limits, as well.”
To accommodate customers, Weavers is presenting a few options: Preorder a smaller turkey while supplies last; order a turkey breast, parts, or even half a turkey; or try a different bird (pheasant, capon, Cornish hen) entirely.
It’s a similar strategy to what has been practiced at Godshall’s Poultry for more than a century. The Reading Terminal Market vendor stocks fresh birds of all sorts year-round. Co-owner Dean Frankenfield is confident he’ll be able to get what his customers want, as long as it’s ordered the Saturday before Thanksgiving. (They’ll have plenty of turkey after that, but specific sizes and cuts will be first-come, first-served.)
“We can adapt because of being smaller,” he says. "We have a customer base that really buys every piece of the turkey.”
Having worked 35 Thanksgiving seasons at Godshall’s, Frankenfield has noticed trends. For years, he says, a growing number of customers have opted for turkey portions, such as boneless breasts and thigh roasts. Last year, folks wanted their birds spatchcocked.
This year, people are shopping early. “Almost daily, I’m having customers come up and say, ‘You know what, I decided I’m gonna do this,’ and we’ll cut up their turkey and they’ll put it in the freezer. They don’t want to deal with that holiday rush.”
Frankenfield has heard whispers of the smaller-bird trend, too. His answer to that: “Don’t get too conservative — if I’ve said that once, I’ve said that a dozen times to people that are saying, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna get a small bird.’
“Well, you know what, you’re gonna be sorry. You are gonna be sorry come Friday or Saturday and it’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have had a little bit more.’”