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With smaller Thanksgiving dinners, local turkey farmers see big demand for small birds

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For some farmers and grocers, the pandemic-induced uncertainty around Thanksgiving plans has led to apprehension about customer turkey preferences: With smaller gatherings, would more people opt out of buying a whole turkey, or would demand stay the same or increase?

Fortunately for local turkey farmers, the latter has been the case — though they're seeing more people wanting smaller turkeys.

Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling was up about 25% in orders over last year, co-owner Rick Hermonot said earlier this week. "Our business has been in growth mode for several years, but this year, it seemed to spike up even more."

This time of year is crucial, considering November brings in 40% to 45% of annual revenue.

As of Friday, Ekonk Hill had sold more than 2,400 of the 3,400 turkeys it raised this year. But the farm typically keeps about 1,000 for year-round sales — for turkey pies, sandwiches and other items sold in the store.

"I think we're going to be short on turkey for the rest of the year," Hermonot said. The farm stopped taking orders Friday but is selling fresh turkeys to walk-in customers until Wednesday, though it may not be the size someone wants.

He said the average turkey order last year was about 20 pounds but it was down to 18 pounds this year. The farm is out of turkeys in the 12- to 15-pound range, so he thinks some people wanting a bird that size will have to take a 17-pound one.

"They were hatched starting in May and then through late July, so the different ages create different sizes for Thanksgiving, so the smaller turkeys are July hatched and the big, big turkeys are May hatched," Hermonot explained.

The turkeys are pasture-raised and recently were moved to the coop to await slaughter, known as processing, which happened the past few days. Hermonot said people don't realize that poultry "is better if it's not too, too fresh," that meat becomes more tender after a few days in a cooler.

Winging it

"We try to raise a mix of birds that will grow to all these different sizes, but trying to match a bird to a customer is very, very challenging," Hermonot said. He called it "a bit of an art" and said "some years we nail it," but weather is also a factor. The birds "are a bit smaller than normal" this year because it's been a warm fall, which has worked out well, given customer preferences.

At Wild Harmony Farm in Exeter, R.I., co-owner Rachael Slattery found that the turkeys were too small in 2019.

"We found that people were really leaning towards wanting larger turkeys and having bigger gatherings, so we set into motion having bigger birds for 2020," she said. "And then of course, with the pandemic and the need for everyone's holiday plans to shift and gathering sizes needing to be smaller, we are now in a position where people want smaller turkeys."

The average turkey last year was about 9 pounds whereas most this year are 12-13 pounds. A customer can order a turkey that's either 7-11 pounds or 11-16 pounds.

"Our customer base is really a community for us, and so people are really, really understanding and engaged with our farming practices and the challenges that arise for a small-scale organic farm, and so I trust that they will be understanding," Slattery said. She also noted, "We make it really clear in our marketing that these are natural growing beings; we can only control it so much how much they weigh."

She relies on a small processing facility instead of killing turkeys on the farm, and she has to book nearly a year in advance.

That means that last winter, she already knew when turkeys would be processed: Nov. 12, and then the turkeys are frozen. Wild Harmony Farm ordered from its hatchery in January and the day-old turkeys, called poults, arrived Aug. 5.

The farm was sold out by the first week of November, selling 154 compared to about 100 last year. It also sold out last year, albeit closer to the pick-up date; the farm just hadn't ordered as many turkeys in 2019.

In East Lyme, White Gate Farm processes its own turkeys like Ekonk Hill but, like Wild Harmony, sells them frozen.

Owner Pauline Lord said White Gate decided to process the turkeys early this year — in October — and keep them small. She commented, "I think that was a good decision, because obviously many people aren't having these massive dinners this year."

The farm got its turkeys in June, as day-old poults, from a hatchery in Iowa. With the early processing, Lord said the biggest turkey this year was 20 pounds, whereas it's usually 25 or 26 pounds, and the range this year was 13 to 19 pounds.

The farm sold all 80 turkeys it had — including the one that was supposed to be for Lord's family. They'll be having chicken instead.

White Gate put each turkey in its online store, so customers could pick out the exact one they wanted.

Grocery stores say they're prepared

For McQuade's Marketplace, which has a store in Mystic and two in Rhode Island, turkey sales are similar this year but the smaller sizes are going to sell out, owner Michael McQuade said. But he said employees can cut turkeys in half, so customers can roast half a large turkey. Fresh and frozen turkeys are available.

McQuade said the grocer orders turkeys in May and tries to get additional birds in the small sizes that are more popular, but those are in limited supply. Hermonot, of Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm, had explained that this is because turkeys lay heavily in April and May but "very, very lightly in June and July."

McQuade said farmers each year try to grow to the consumers' demand from the previous year but "this year everybody was thrown a little curveball with the virus and parties being smaller."

Maura O'Brien, a spokesperson for Stop & Shop, said in an email the company "believes we're well-positioned to help our customers find everything they need for their Thanksgiving gatherings this year, whether big or small."

She said Stop & Shop is offering medium and large turkeys but also more small turkey varieties this year, and is selling turkey breasts, tenderloins and legs to accommodate smaller gatherings.

e.moser@theday.com

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