Thanksgiving sales make up a whopping 36 per cent of the Ontario turkey market, says Brian Ricker, a turkey farmer in Dunnville and chair of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario board.
“Last year the prime minister called Thanksgiving off, but thanksgiving sales actually were abnormally high. From the early indicators, this year was similar or better than last year, which was better than the year before,” said Ricker.
Pandemic restrictions actually benefited turkey sales. “When people are going to stay home and cook a turkey, that’s better for us than people going out to eat, where they typically don’t eat turkey.”
Turkey prices have gone up, as with all foods during the pandemic. Canada’s 2021 Food Price Report forecasts a meat price increase of 4.5 to 6.5 per cent in the next year.
In the last year, Ontario’s turkey farmers have focused on growing smaller turkeys for the smaller get togethers, Ricker said. He says that last year’s best sellers were 5 to 6 lb. and 7 to 8 lb. birds, whereas many of the larger birds remained in cold storage.
Although whole bird sales went up during the pandemic, the processing sector and deli meat sales didn’t do so well. “People aren’t packing lunches to go to work. Kids are at home. They’re not buying deli meat,” Ricker said.
The labour shortage has been a “huge problem” for the turkey industry, says Ricker, who was on the phone with a processor expecting 76 employees to harvest turkeys right before Thanksgiving weekend. Only 50 showed up. They reduced the line speed and weren’t able to make some products.
“There’s lots of reasons why people don’t show up. They’ve got childcare issues, they’re in for COVID testing, they don’t feel good. There’s a myriad of reasons,” said Ricker. Relatively close working conditions and high manual labour requirements also caused processors to struggle with maintaining efficiency while enforcing COVID safety measures.
Turkey processing plants have increased wage rates to entice employees that are healthy and well to keep coming to harvest turkeys. This pay increase will likely trickle into turkey prices, says Ricker.
Heidi Clement, owner of Bearbrook Game Meats in Ottawa, says she had a successful Thanksgiving for turkey sales. Her farm sells a variety of meats including elk, buffalo, and wild boar.
“When COVID first started, sales were through the roof and we were extremely overwhelmed. Now that things have opened up, we’re at a more balanced pace. People are still supporting local but people are going back to the big box stores,” explained Clement.
She said she raised about 100 turkeys this year and sold them all. She credits her loyal clientele, who eagerly bought her out.
For Thanksgiving, Clement charged $8.89 a kilo. She raised her turkey prices by 10 cents a kilo this year, but says she’s seen turkey prices go up as much as $1.50 a kilo elsewhere.
“For Christmas we’ll have to raise them more,” she said. “Fuel prices have gone up, abattoir prices have gone up, seed prices have gone up, labour has gone up, everything has gone up. We’re at a point where we’re going to have to make a few amendments.”