Looking for a local Thanksgiving turkey this year? You may end up grasping at feathers.
While some local farmers have a few turkeys left at this point in the season, the demand for local food has been so high this year that farms are selling out of everything — animal, vegetable and mineral.
Jim Schultz at Red Shirt Farm in Lanesborough has raised about 75 heritage turkeys; by the end of September, all were spoken for.
“We don’t advertise at all anymore,” he said. Most of the turkeys have been reserved by his usual customers, and he has a waiting list of 20 to 25 people.
The heritage breeds are usually smaller than your typical butterball, so they’re perfect for a socially distanced celebration.
“I think the response to [COVID-19], how people are hunkering down for Thanksgiving, means more people are asking for a smaller bird,” Schultz said.
Smaller turkeys aren’t the only local product in demand thanks to the pandemic. Local farmers have seen an upward trend in sales this year as more people look for local, safe options to feed their families. Red Shirt offers vegetables, fruit, heritage pigs and turkeys, chickens, and eggs, and Schultz’ sales at farmers markets doubled this year, he said.
“Everything we’ve grown has sold out,” he said. “If we could have produced twice as much, I think we could have sold twice as much.”
This year, Ashley Amsden and Michael Gallagher of Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough have raised around 140 turkeys. Most have already been preordered.
“Part of it was everyone was home because they’re cooking more — but the pandemic kind of exposed the fragility of the food system,” Amsden said. “People wanted to find local producers who were maybe more reliable than the food systems that feed the grocery store.”
To meet demand, Amsden and Gallagher supplied local farmers markets with vegetables, eggs, and pasture-raised chicken, pork and beef, and started up an online ordering system with home delivery.
Dom Palumbo at Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield has felt the same demand, while also committing as usual to feeding the farm’s workers, apprentices and interns three meals a day. He sourced his turkey poults (baby turkeys) from Schultz, and has around 40 birds at the moment. He hasn’t started taking orders yet, but expects to sell out.
And longtime customers are, indeed, asking for smaller turkeys.
“In the past, people got the largest turkey they could,” Palumbo said. “Most of the time the heritage breeds don’t reach those kinds of weights, maybe 8 to 10 pounds. This year, everybody wants the 6, 8, 10-pound turkeys. We may have the opposite situation from previous years, where the birds are too big, even though they are relatively small.”
After hearing about the grocery shortages earlier this year, Palumbo committed to growing as much food as he could, but local supply chains also get complicated, and there are a limited number of cows, pigs, and chickens to raise for slaughter. He doesn’t raise turkeys every year, but saw it as an opportunity to provide more local food.
“We were obligated to do everything we could to raise as much food as possible,” he said. “When COVID-19 hits food supply systems to where they can’t deliver, there are massive repercussions.”
Supply chains also impact what you eat eats, as Amsden puts it, from the non-GMO feed Square Roots feeds its animals to locating a butcher, which was tough this year with so many farms trying to produce more to meet demand. (Square Roots, and many other local farms, process chickens and turkeys on-site.)
Having extra inventory can also pose an issue. “We’re really tight on freezer space right now,” Amsden said. Square Roots rents freezer storage at an upstate New York food bank, but there’s no extra room for extra food, thus Square Roots didn’t opt to raise extra turkeys.
“We also have relationships with folks like food pantries and meals programs, and (in the event of extra food) we’d consider making a donation, trying to move through restaurants ... but I think we’re going to sell out,” she said.
Though the increased demand has presented challenges of its own, “It’s wonderful to see the movement and the support for farmers and farmers markets in the area,” Shultz said.
“It’s a bit of a mixed blessing,” said Palumbo. “It came so fast and under duress, but it is in fact what all we local farmers have been working around and for. It’s our calling and our mission.”