Got your Thanksgiving turkey yet?
If you were holding out for a fresh Butterball or perhaps a cage-free bird from a local organic farmer, you may have waited too long.
Butterball, the nation’s largest producer of turkeys, announced late last week that many of its larger birds haven’t gained enough weight, so its Thanksgiving supply of fresh turkeys will be reduced. The company still has plenty of frozen birds, just not fresh ones that are larger than 16 pounds.
In Maine, farmers say they are running out of fresh turkeys because of strong demand this year.
Dave Herring, executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, said his farm raised 300 free-range turkeys this year, up from 250 last year. Over the weekend, he said, Wolfe’s Neck sold out. The birds will be slaughtered next week.
“Our turkey demand has grown considerably in the last three or four years,” Herring said. “There are going to be some people who are disappointed, but hopefully they can find a good (turkey) elsewhere.”
Daniel Mays, who owns Frith Farm in Scarborough, sold all of his 100 turkeys at the end of last month. This is his third year raising turkeys, and he has doubled the number each year.
“I probably could have sold 200 by now,” he said Monday.
The demand for fresh organic turkeys, instead of the traditional frozen ones, has grown along with consumer preferences for all manner of organic products. Devotees swear that fresh organic turkeys taste better and they would never go back to frozen.
“Anyone who comes in knows what they are getting. It’s a completely different product,” Mays said.
Buyers must be willing to pay for it, though.
Wolfe’s Neck and Frith farms sell their fresh turkeys for $4.50 a pound. That’s $72 for a 16-pound bird.
John Barnstein, who owns Maine-Ly Poultry in Warren, raises 2,500 turkeys every year and sells them fresh to retailers, including the Rosemont Market in Portland and Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport. In the store, his birds sell for $3.40 per pound.
Barnstein said Monday that he isn’t sure how fast his turkeys are selling at the stores, but he’s heard that sales are ahead of last year’s. He said not everyone is willing to pay so much for a turkey, even once a year, but farmers aren’t getting rich by marking up fresh local products.
“Good food costs more money,” he said. “There is no way of getting around it.”
Herring said Wolfe’s Neck Farm doesn’t make much profit from free-range turkeys because of the high cost of raising them, but “it’s a part of what we want to do.”
Consumers who don’t want to pay top dollar for a local bird but still want fresh turkey often turn to Butterball, which has a 20 percent market share on turkeys nationwide.
The company said it still doesn’t know why its birds aren’t gaining enough weight, although last year’s drought boosted grain prices, which could have affected companies’ ability to feed their animals adequately.
“While we are continuing to evaluate all potential causes, we are working to remedy the issue,” Butterball spokeswoman Stephanie Llorente said in a prepared statement Friday.
It wasn’t clear Monday how the Butterball shortage was affecting the Maine market. Representatives for Hannaford and Shaw’s, the biggest grocery store chains in the state, said they weren’t aware of any shortage.
Even consumers who don’t buy from local farms have options for fresh turkeys, although Butterball’s announcement could leave one less option.
Shaw’s in South Portland had Shady Brook fresh turkeys for $1.99 per pound Monday, but no Butterballs. At the Hannaford store at Mill Creek in South Portland, there were some fresh Butterballs, selling for $1.49 per pound, and fresh Nature’s Place organic turkeys for $2.49 per pound.
Both grocery chains had low-cost alternatives. At Hannaford, frozen Marval turkeys were selling for 49 cents a pound. And at Shaw’s, frozen Honeysuckle White turkeys were selling for the same price. That’s $7.84 for a 16-pounder.
At Whole Foods in Portland, fresh turkeys from Jaindl Farms in Pennsylvania were selling for $2.50 per pound. Barbara Gulino, marketing team leader for the store, said she couldn’t say how many turkeys have been sold, but she’s “pleased with our holiday sales so far.”
In addition to fresh turkeys, Whole Foods sells seasoned, brined, ready-to-cook birds and fully cooked turkeys that only have to be warmed up.
There are many options for people in Greater Portland, but with Thanksgiving just nine days away, some may have to wait until next year for a locally raised turkey.
Herring, at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, said it’s not uncommon for his farm to take orders for turkeys months in advance.
Kathy Gunst, a nationally known cookbook author who lives in South Berwick, said it’s worth the wait.
“There is nothing like it,” she said. “It hasn’t been frozen or shipped or flown. You’re getting a fresh-killed bird that’s just a few days old. That’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.”
Gunst said she understands that not everyone can afford fresh and local turkeys.
“But if you only eat turkey once a year,” she said, “isn’t it worth it to support a local farmer?”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: