Cooks around the country are just starting to calculate menus and decide how many guests they can safely host for Thanksgiving. But for months, the people who grow and sell the centerpiece of the meal have been doing their own kind of turkey math.
Just how many whole turkeys will Americans cook this year for a holiday that's had its wings clipped by the pandemic?
"That's the big question on the tip of everybody's tongue," said Stew Leonard Jr., who expects to sell 20% fewer big turkeys at the seven stores his family owns in the Northeast.
Nearly 70% of Americans plan to celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year, according to a consumer survey released last month by the Chicago-based market research firm Numerator. The revised plans are motivated in no small part by new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend skipping holiday travel and limiting Thanksgiving celebrations to people living in the same household.
Consumer research from both Butterball and Hormel Foods, which together sell most of the more than 40 million whole turkeys that are eaten for Thanksgiving, suggests that big gatherings will be broken into several smaller ones, most of which will still center on turkey. One-third of the respondents to the Butterball survey said they were considering serving dinner outdoors, and the number of people who plan to host only their immediate family has jumped to 30% from 18% last year.
Kroger executives are closely studying their own data, which show 43% of their shoppers will limit Thanksgiving to only the people already in their households.
"It's really the size of the celebrations that has changed," said Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation. "How that translates to the size of the bird people want is something we are a little less clear on."
The calculations are tricky. Contracts to buy baby turkeys, called poults, are often written a year in advance, and growing those poults to the proper size for the market takes months. Even if farmers wanted to raise smaller turkeys, it's not that easy. Genetics, coupled with economically driven feed formulas, produce birds that mature at a predetermined size in a set amount of time.
"It's not an industry in which you can quickly pivot," said John Peterson, whose family has owned the 140-acre Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minn., for 80 years. "For us to have any meaningful impact on changing anything for Thanksgiving, those decisions had to be made in March or April."
Peterson is president of the turkey research and promotion council for Minnesota, the nation's top turkey-producing state. About one-quarter of the 160,000 turkeys he is growing this year will be sold for the holidays. He is doing what he can to keep the turkeys small, like slaughtering some earlier than he might in a normal year.
Cody Hopkins runs a livestock cooperative of 40 farms mostly in Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri that will ship out about 3,000 broad-breasted whites -- by far the most common American breed -- that have been raised on pasture. He is making similar tweaks to his flock.
Because the cooperative sells directly to families and isn't locked into a supermarket chain's schedule, farmers have been able to move processing time lines in an attempt to produce smaller birds, he said. The cooperative also is planning to sell more turkey wings and breasts.
"We're talking about doing some bigger chickens, too, to give people options," Hopkins said.
The pivot is harder for the nation's largest producers of whole turkeys, as those companies are wrestling with both the health concerns and the economic realities of covid-19. The virus charged through some poultry packing plants at alarming rates, forcing temporary closings and a call for improved working conditions.
Beyond the whole-bird trade, the turkey business has been hurting. Although grocery store sales are up, coronavirus lockdowns have crushed the market for sliced turkey at sub shops, college cafeterias and catered events. In July, Butterball reported losing $27 million in the second quarter.
NOTES OF OPTIMISM
Still, the sellers of whole turkeys are optimistic. Leonard has increased by 20% his order for birds that weigh less than 16 pounds, and he plans to add more individual turkey breasts to the mix. Instead of setting up most of his packaged Thanksgiving dinners for eight people, he is increasing the packages for four.
He expects good sales overall. "Nobody's going to skip Thanksgiving," he said.
And poultry analysts say that inexpensive supermarket birds, which serve as enticements called loss leaders, might be harder to find.
"We could actually see something of a run on turkeys," said Mark Jordan, the executive director of Leap Market Analytics in Arkansas, who studies the turkey market.
On the other hand, after seven months of taking their kitchens through the paces, many cooks are much more mindful of food waste. The thought of a whole turkey for only a few guests might not make sense, said Dasha Shor, a registered dietitian and food analyst who specializes in meat and meat alternatives for Mintel, a global market research company.
"There is almost this perfect storm for the whole bird," she said. "The silver lining is that people are actually interested in cooking. Almost half of consumers want to cook at home and get better at it."
As a result, she predicted, more people than ever before will be trying to replicate the Thanksgiving dinner they grew up eating.
"I can see more young consumers for the first time in their lives hosting a small Thanksgiving at home and trying to roast their first turkey," she said.