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Turkey farmers had high hopes for better profits this year, but supply costs have spiked

221114_Turkeys_mm
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Turkeys forage on the grass at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, Conn., where farmer Rick Hermonot is raising nearly 4,000 birds for Thanksgiving. Despite a 9% increase in turkey prices this year, Hermonot says it’s not enough to cover his cost increases, which include a 25% jump in the cost of purchasing turkey chicks and fertilizer costs that have tripled.

With 4,000 turkeys and a farm over 300 acres, farmer Rick Hermonot was already thinking big.

But Hermonot said he’s still struggling to comprehend massive price spikes on everything from feed to fertilizer that he needs to buy for Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, Connecticut.

“We paid $440 a ton the year before,” Hermonot said, referencing last year’s fertilizer purchase. “This year, we paid $1,300 a ton in the spring.”

In one year, prices nearly tripled.

“That was almost hard to comprehend,” Hermonot said.

Most of the world’s supply of fertilizer comes from Russia, and the war is causing a global shortage. Ukraine is also one of the world’s leading exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower, according to NPR. The war has stressed grain exports from Ukrainian ports, which has led to a global rise in food prices.

Hermonot said he’s paying more this year for grain to feed his turkeys. He said he’s even paying more for turkey hatchlings.

“We don’t have our own hatchery,” he said. “We buy babies from another farm, and the price of those were up about 25%.”

All those rising costs mean Hermonot had to raise prices this year. In a usual year, he said, if the farm needs to raise turkey prices, they generally do it by 20 to 30 cents a pound.

“This year, we went up 50 cents a pound,” he said. “It’s the biggest increase we’ve ever had in one year.”

Federal data from the U.S. Agriculture Department shows that Hermonot’s price hikes aren’t unique.

Miller Farms
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
The family at Miller Farms in Avon, Conn., is continuing their new tradition called the "Thankful Turkey" — donating thousands of birds to Connecticut Foodshare, Nov. 7, 2022.

A Nov. 16 memo from the USDA outlined the year-over-year price hike for a typical Thanksgiving meal, including a frozen turkey, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, cranberries, green beans and milk. “Overall, this represents a 6% increase over last year for these selected items combined,” according to the memo.

But there is some good news for consumers. USDA pricing data show that year-over-year turkey price hikes seem to be shrinking as Thanksgiving approaches. That’s because stores start offering turkeys at a loss to attract customers. Right now in the Northeast, current weighted retail averages for fresh turkeys are about equal with where they were last year at this time.

The ‘sheer hell’ of COVID and its lingering impact on farms

For decades, Miller Farms in Avon raised turkeys. Then the pandemic hit.

“It’s hell. It’s sheer hell,” said Carolyn Miller-Stevens, with Miller Farms. “People try to get [a] positive out of it. But the baseline is, it was sheer H-E-double L.”

In 2020, whether people would want to gather for Thanksgiving was unclear. With pandemic restrictions in place, people were forgoing traditional gatherings and traditional turkey purchases. Even those families who were looking to get a bird might be opting for a smaller one. And if they did ultimately order a turkey, Miller-Stevens said it wasn’t clear if a meat packing plant would remain open to process slaughtered birds, due to pandemic-related staffing shortages.

So Miller Farms made the tough decision to stop raising and selling turkeys out of their Avon market. They now partner with other family farms – locally and across the country – to source thousands of birds, which get trucked to their facility.

The company is still selling Miller-branded turkeys at Big Y and other local shops. It’s also partnering with Connecticut Foodshare to donate thousands of frozen turkeys to people in need.

Miller Farms
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Capri "Grammi" Brighenti, president at Miller Farms in Avon, Conn., says, "Supply chain isn't just the turkey. It's all the factors. If you go through it, it's raising the turkey. It's getting people to actually come to work. And get people back to work, so they can raise the turkey." Brighenti looks over a shipment on the loading dock at Miller Farms, Nov. 7, 2022.

Speaking on the loading dock of their packing facility in Avon, Capri Brighenti, president at Miller Farms, gestured to a pallet of hundreds of 10-pound frozen turkeys that just arrived.

She said diesel prices have impacted the cost of transporting birds and said this batch of turkeys was another example of an all-too-familiar message she sees in her email.

“We got some notification that, ‘Hey, these have to be delayed because of trucking issues.’ And so they came in this morning,” Brighenti said, touching the pallet, which was late. “Others that we were expecting to come this morning won’t be here until Friday.”

Brighenti said the reason for the delay typically ranges anywhere from no driver to no available truck – or simple processing delays.

In other words, she said, there is a shortage of people.

“Supply chain isn’t just the turkey,” she said. “It’s raising the turkey. It’s getting people to actually come to work. And get people back to work, so they can raise the turkey.”

Back on his farm in Sterling, Rick Hermonot said that as his slaughter operation ramps up in the days before Thanksgiving, he’ll have about 15 to 18 people working.

That is, if he can find them.

“Our biggest concern is getting people here,” Hermonot said. “We’ll pay whatever we have to pay to get them, but we just can’t get them.”

And then there are those lingering production costs. He said his price hike of 50 cents per pound still won’t adequately offset the cost hikes he’s faced growing his turkeys.

He said his farm is now primarily run by his daughters, who made the tough decision to limit the amount of costs they passed onto consumers.

“They’re going to have to work just as hard as ever – even harder, because of the fact that we can’t get the help,” he said. “Everyone here is working extra hard. And they’re going to have less of a paycheck for themselves.

“This whole economic situation is frustrating – very frustrating,” he said.

Miller Farms
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Carolyn “Auntie Cal” Miller-Stevens, the family matriarch, walks toward their barn that is being leased for weddings and events at Miller Farms in Avon, Conn., Nov. 7, 2022.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.