How Wisconsin may be affected by a turkey shortage this Thanksgiving.

Samantha Hendrickson
Wisconsin State Farmer
A white Tom turkey enjoys a sunny day on Old Glory Farm in Elkhorn, Wisc.

When many families cancelled their large Thanksgivings in 2020, they also cancelled their large turkeys. 

Old Glory Farm, a turkey farm in Elkhorn, saw an increase in the demand for smaller turkeys last year, as families gathered in smaller groups — but fewer turkeys overall. Still, owners Kyle and Deanna Scott made their 2021 processing appointment with Twin Cities Packing of Clinton a year in advance. It's one of the few processing plants for independent farmers in Wisconsin.

And the couple is glad they did. This year, large turkeys are back on the menu, and Old Glory's 2021 turkeys are selling faster and sooner than they did in 2020.

But a national shortage has sparked worry for both consumers and farmers alike, as factors such as lack of workers and lack of processing plant availability could make fresh, smaller turkeys hard to find this Thanksgiving. 

According to Consumer Reports, most discussion around a national shortage is "an overstatement," but turkeys under 16 lbs. will be tricky to find, and you're better off buying your turkey frozen than fresh if you want to secure your bird. 

Turkeys are shown in a pen at Root Down Farm in Pescadero, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

However, the report notes that small farms and big processors alike are being affected by the overall supply chain issues. These are due to the global pandemic, including shortages in labor, transportation, and packaging materials.

"The challenges we face, primarily around labor and transportation, are no different than most, but has had an impact on our ability to keep pace with demand," said Butterball Turkey spokesperson Christa Leupen on the national turkey shortage.

Butterball's processing line speeds have varied over the last 18 months, sometimes slowed by as much as 30%, Leupen said, which is in part due COVID-19 accommodations and "fluctuating labor availability."

Smaller Wisconsin farms' poultry shortages often come from a lack of processing plants around the state, not necessarily lack of turkeys, said Ron Kean, University of Wisconsin-Extension poultry expert.

Dave Greening, general manager of Organic Prairie, part of Organic Valley cooperative, said that the La Farge based coop has had no trouble in the supply chains for the upcoming holiday season. Organic Prairie's supply chains are kept small due to steady relationships local farmers and processors, and that they're ready to serve the state for Thanksgiving. 

But the smaller, independent farms who have to process and sell right from their farms, may have to travel outside the state to get their processing needs fulfilled. 

"It's common for people to have to go to Illinois ... up to three hours away just to process birds," said Deanna Scott, adding that she and her husband were lucky they made their appointment a year in advance. 

But the demand for more plants isn't being met. While poultry peaks in the summer and holiday season, it drops off sharply in January through May, providing little incentive for more processing plants to be built. 

It also comes down to cost justification for the plants and the farmers, Kean said. Often, the amount of money made isn't worth the amount of poultry processed, which likely means bigger turkeys will be more available in the state than smaller ones. 

"With small producers, it's often the processing that's the bottleneck," Kean said.

However, according to Butterball, turkey is the best part of Thanksgiving and shouldn't dissuade smaller gatherings from a larger purchase. 

"If there is a specific size turkey you want, we encourage you to shop early," Leupen said. "The good news is that it is just as easy to cook a larger turkey as it is a smaller turkey, and the larger turkey means more leftovers – which for many people is one of the best parts of the Thanksgiving meal."

How do you use your big turkey leftovers? Please contact the author of this article with your turkey leftover recipes.

Samantha Hendrickson can be reached at 414-223-5383 or shendrickson@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @samanthajhendr.