Abby Pearson of Bath usually celebrates Thanksgiving in a big way.

She and her husband and two children, ages 2 and 6, spend the holiday with her husband’s large extended family – either in Windham or Harpswell. The feast includes a big turkey – sometimes two.

But this year, the pandemic has thrown a big roasted drumstick into their plans. For Pearson, that means celebrating with just her husband and kids – and less food, including a smaller turkey.

Chase Harris, co-owner of Harris Turkey Farm in West Newfield. Normally, the birds sell out in mid-September. This year, they were all spoken for by June. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Everyone would expect Aunt Sue to bring the creamed onions and for Uncle Tom to make the apple pie,” said Pearson, who works at Colby College. “Now I think everyone is trying to figure out how to downsize and still feel connected to family over Thanksgiving.”

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in our lives this year – including, for some, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table.

Frequent national reports have suggested consumers may switch to smaller birds to suit smaller Thanksgiving celebrations. Late last month, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, warned that the virus’ rapid spread appeared to be prevalent in  gatherings such as family dinners, and he cautioned Mainers to be vigilant.

Will smaller holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving lead to a demand for smaller turkeys? It’s hard to say.

“We’ve seen a lot of stories where there are projections about a demand for smaller turkeys, but that’s largely anecdotal right now,” said Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing at the National Turkey Federation, which represents 2,500 large commercial growers. “We’re really not going to see how that shakes out until consumers get to the store.”

Prognosticating

But Maine turkey farmers, some of whom have been taking Thanksgiving orders for weeks, have had an early glimpse into consumer preferences. They say the verdict is mixed. Some people are switching to smaller birds, or breasts and other turkey parts. Others are still going big, even buying two or more big turkeys.

“The ones that we’re selling from our farm that people come and pick up, there seem to be a lot of people looking for 18-20-pound-birds,” said John Barnstein, owner of Maine-ly Poultry in Warren. “But (at the farmers market) in Orono the majority of orders – 80 percent – are for 10- to 12-pound birds.”

Barnstein, who is raising 4,500 turkeys this year, took a chance when he ordered his poults in June, buying a smaller breed of turkey to raise along with his flock of more traditional broad-breasted whites. Broad-breasted white hens typically weigh in at 18-20 pounds and the toms at 20-25 pounds. By comparison, Nicolas mini whites dress out at 10-12 pounds for hens and 16-17 pounds for males.

Barnstein thinks he made the right choice. His wholesalers tell him they expect to sell a lot more smaller turkeys this year. “I was thinking that people wouldn’t be going to restaurants and having big gatherings if the virus was still around at this time of year, so that was kind of a lucky guess,” he said.

Rosemont Markets will sell Barnstein’s Nicolas minis as well as chickens in the 8- to 10-pound range, said Erin Lynch, director of operations at the small chain of high-end grocery stores. The staff started planning for Thanksgiving in August, she said, and in light of recommendations to keep gatherings small, the store doubled its order of smaller birds over last year.

“We just opened our Thanksgiving special orders on (Nov. 1) and we were right – people are ordering tons of small birds,” she said, including both chickens and turkeys.

Lisa Brunelle of Biddeford is going with a chicken this year. Brunelle, who works in information services at MaineHealth, said she and her husband usually go to her brother-in-law’s in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, where the meal includes the usual stuffing, yams, sweet potato pie, and a big turkey to feed at least a half dozen people. This year, they’ll dine with her parents, who live next door. Another reason to get the chicken? “My dad doesn’t like turkey,” she said.

Turkeys at Harris Turkey Farm in West Newfield. Harris says his customers are buying bigger turkeys this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But some consumers are still choosing big birds. Turkey farmers think some people want to be sure to have plenty of leftovers. Others may still be stuck in the hoarding mentality that emptied shelves of toilet paper and baking products in the spring. Meat packing plants were shutting down at that time as well, noted Chase Harris, who owns Harris Turkey Farm in West Newfield with his husband Jason, and consumers heard whispers of meat shortages.

The Harrises raised 400 to 500 Thanksgiving turkeys this year. They start taking orders in June, and usually sell out by mid-September. This year, they sold out in June. Most of their customers prefer a 15-pound turkey, but this year they are asking for 20-, even 30-pounders, Harris said. And many are ordering more than one.

Let’s talk turkey

Scott Greaney, who owns Greaney’s Turkey Farm in Mercer, said more customers are asking for smaller birds, but he tries to talk them out of it. Greaney, whose smallest turkeys weigh in at 15 or 16 pounds, said smaller turkeys like the ones the big commercial farmers raise have little fat under the skin, which is why they are injected with flavoring and moisture. His larger turkeys are fed whole grains and develop “a nice fat coating” by the time they’re six months old.

He recommends that people buy their turkeys by yield and not weight. A 12-pound turkey has a much lower yield of meat to bone than a 25-pound bird, he said. “It’s like building a house when we grow turkeys,” Greaney said. “We’ve got to put the frame on the turkeys, and if you slaughter them too small, you’re going to get mostly skin and bone.”

Greaney, who raised about 1,200 Thanksgiving turkeys this year, encourages customers who want less meat to buy half of a larger bird.

He’s also witnessed a lingering hoarding mentality among customers who are ordering two or three turkeys or want larger birds because they’re worried about meat shortages returning over the winter. “They’re not going to get caught with their pants down twice, let’s put it that way,” he said.

Despite his belief that bigger is better, Greaney says he sells his turkeys to 10 stores around the state, “and all of our stores that we sell to are saying people are looking for small ones.”

Hannaford expects to see more demand for smaller turkeys, turkey parts and breasts, according to Ericka Dodge, a spokesperson for the company, as well as for alternative proteins, such as whole chickens, roasts and seafood.

T-Day crowdsourcing

Pearson took her dilemma over what to serve this year to a popular Facebook group that focuses on home cooking during the pandemic: “Thoughts on a small Thanksgiving menu?” she wrote. “I’m thinking about cooking turkey parts rather than a whole bird (which I’ve never done). Will I still have enough drippings for gravy?”

The responses came in fast and furious. Several people suggested she buy a turkey breast, or go in a different direction with a chicken or Cornish game hens. Others encouraged her to buy a smaller turkey so she would have leftovers to use in soups, pot pies and turkey sandwiches. Break down a whole turkey, one commenter suggested; eat the breast, freeze the thighs for later, and use the rest for stock.

“I’m going to try to order a local turkey, if I can still get hold of one and if I can make sure that it’s not going to be huge,” Pearson said.

Pearson thinks smaller is better because her young children have small appetites “and because I want to put multiple things in the oven.” She’s also considering outsourcing the turkey to restaurant takeout so she can concentrate on the rest of the meal. To maintain that feeling of togetherness – and add variety to the table – she may ask members of her extended family to cook a pie or two and cut them up for sharing. On Thanksgiving morning, they’ll trade with each other from a proper distance, then go back to their own homes for their Thanksgiving meal.

Pearson knows, though, that the holiday just won’t be the same, no matter what size turkey is on the table.

“The worst part of it is, this is the year when we want it the most,” she said. “This is when we really need to be with our family and feeling that support and love, and you just can’t have that this year.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.