Some things are changing about turkeys in 2020, but anyone who wants one should be able to find one.

By Susan B. Barnes
October 22, 2020
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The holiday season is upon us, and while this year's celebrations may look different than in years past due to COVID-19, we're still looking for a sense of normalcy as we move through fall towards winter. That starts with Thanksgiving.

A recent Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Butterball shows that 87 percent of adults queried who typically celebrate Thanksgiving say they'll make the Thanksgiving meal happen, even if the celebration looks a little different this year, primarily with only immediate family.

Additionally, 76 percent of this group of adults say that Thanksgiving dinners will help them reestablish a sense of normalcy, and 17 percent of those polled say they improved their cooking skills while they've been at home and feel more confident to put a Thanksgiving meal on the table.

Unfortunately, however, it seems COVID-19 may be changing more than travel plans and trips to grandma's house this Thanksgiving. It may be changing the supply of turkey you can expect to find in stores, too.

Credit: Kate Kline May/Getty Images

As we make preparations for traditional dishes that take center stage on dining tables across the U.S., we take a look at the star of the Thanksgiving show, turkey. We reached out to experts for their insights into the main attraction of many Thanksgiving feasts — and to find out if the rumors of a turkey shortage are true.

Is There a Turkey Shortage in 2020?

Unsurprisingly, raising turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday starts well before fall, and the National Turkey Federation says that farmers have been working diligently to fulfill Thanksgiving commitments for consumers.

"We've all had to adapt over the past few months, but operations are full steam ahead to deliver the turkey products Americans want," said Shelby Shaw with the National Turkey Federation in an interview with Allrecipes. 

"That said, Thanksgiving will undoubtedly be very different this year," she continued. "While it is uncertain exactly what the holidays will look like, we anticipate an increased number of Thanksgiving 'first-timers' and possibly more, albeit smaller, holiday celebrations. We may also see multiple, spaced-out celebrations as folks allow for time to self-quarantine after travel."

Rebecca Welch, senior brand manager of seasonal business at Butterball, agrees. "We've been working since March to make sure everyone who wants to can have a Thanksgiving dinner in a way that they want to," she said in an interview with Allrecipes. "We're really encouraged to see that people are committed to having Thanksgiving."

According to the USDA, Minnesota is the largest turkey producing state in the U.S. with 39 million turkeys in 2020; that figure is down 2 percent from last year. Overall, turkeys raised in the U.S. during 2020 is forecasted at 222 million, which is down 3 percent from the number raised during 2019.

Ashley Klaphake is a turkey farmer in Central Minnesota who serves on the Minnesota Turkey Research & Promotion Council Board of Directors. She and her husband Jon are third-generation, independent farmers growing turkeys for Jennie-O Turkey Store. They took over the farm, Meadowlark Turkeys LLC, from Jon's grandfather three years ago. (Consumers can trace their Jennie-O turkeys back to the farms they were raised on, like Klaphake's, through Jennie-O's Turkey Tracker.)

When asked about their farm and how the novel coronavirus may impact it this year, Klaphake said in an interview with Allrecipes, "We farm all year long. As far as our business being effected, right now we have three barns that will be going out for the fresh turkey season. As far as it [COVID-19] effecting us as a farm, it hasn't too much."

Klaphake went on to say that over the summer she and Jon saw what they considered a surprising uptick in sales of whole birds, "which is what our farm does — we produce whole birds, those Thanksgiving birds; that's all our farm produces."

As far as what this fall may look like, "There may be smaller gatherings, but I think people will gather, and I think turkey will definitely be consumed," Klaphake said. "On our farm specifically, we do a lot of smaller birds, and for our business personally, that's going to be a really good thing. Maybe if there are smaller gatherings, people might want smaller birds."

Bottom line: Turkey production numbers are down slightly in 2020, but this isn't directly due to COVID-19. However, experts expect shoppers will want smaller turkeys in 2020 due to shrinking attendance numbers, and that may put a push on shoppers to buy the smaller turkeys before they're all snapped up.

Where to Find Smaller Turkeys

If your Thanksgiving plans call for a smaller turkey, Welch suggests doing your Thanksgiving meal shopping early for more selection. She also says to not be afraid of going bigger and planning ahead for leftovers that can be used in sandwiches, soups, and casseroles.

If you have too many leftovers, Welch says prepared turkey meat should be in the freezer within three days of cooking, and it can be kept frozen for two to six months for best quality, according to the USDA.

Another option for those looking for a smaller turkey or fewer leftovers is an Organic Single Origin Broad Breasted Turkey from Farmer Focus, which recently added turkeys to its lineup of humanely raised organic chickens. With an average weight of 13 pounds, Farmer Focus' turkeys will feed about six to eight people, and each turkey has its own Farm ID to allow consumers to explore the Virginia or West Virginia farm on which their turkeys were raised. The turkeys are available through December exclusively at select Kroger locations, all Fresh Thyme Market locations, natural stores, and through FreshDirect.com.

When asked how COVID-19 has impacted Farmer Focus' turkeys, Corwin Heatwole, a sixth-generation farmer and founder of Farmer Focus, said, "These heirloom birds are unique, and we commit months in advance to the eggs. So, our number hasn't changed.

Corwin Heatwole and his son feeding turkeys
| Credit: Founding Farmer

"What has changed is the size of the bird people are looking for this Thanksgiving," he continued. "Averaging 10 to 14 pounds, our birds are smaller than some of the commercially raised turkeys that people may be used to. This makes them perfect for the smaller gatherings people may be having this year. That smaller size is by design."

Heatwole added that Farmer Focus' turkeys are Broad Breasted Bronze, an heirloom breed that grows more slowly than commercial birds.

"This is one of our first flocks of turkeys, and we're excited to be raising them the same way we do our chickens: organic, humane, and under the care of one of our 68 family farm partners," he said.

"No matter what the festivities look like [this year], we're looking forward to turkey being the star of the show per usual," added Shaw.

Remember, whether big or small, and whatever kind of turkey, the team of Butterball Turkey Talk-Line experts are just a phone call, text, or Alexa request away and will be ready to help however they can — just as they have for 39 years — to ensure your Thanksgiving feast is one for the history books.

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com.