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Gobbled up: Small Missouri turkey farmers see high demand

Rosalie Truong, doctor, farmer, always on the move

Turkeys and chickens mill about as Dr. Rosalie Truong collects eggs from her chickens at Grand Army Farm in Labadie on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. Dr. Truong, who is an anesthesiologist at St. Luke’s, has also been working as a farmer since 2008, producing vegetables, eggs, meat, and fiber from the chickens, goats, rabbits, ducks and quail she keeps.

ST. LOUIS — Family farms that raise specialty turkeys rode the gravy train to Thanksgiving this year.

Three farms that serve the St. Louis market said sales for their free-range, farm-raised birds jumped this fall as area residents, many returning to family dinners for the first time in a year, were willing to pay $100 for their holiday centerpiece.

“I could have sold twice as many as I had orders for,” said Jolene Benne, 69, who owns Benne’s Best Meat, a farm in St. Charles. “The demand was huge.”

There are more turkeys in Missouri than people. The state is perennially the fourth- or fifth-largest producer in the country. And while this is a down year for most large-scale turkey farms, St. Louis-area residents gobbled up specialty turkeys this Thanksgiving, farmers said.

The COVID-19 caseload has dipped, and people are getting vaccinated, leading families to gather again for the holidays.

Some consumers were attracted to the farm-raised birds, viewing them as more humane and healthier. Others, farmers said, just like the taste of the birds — often alternative or heritage breeds.

Last year, Missouri was fourth-largest in the U.S. in turkey production, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. This year, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the state to be fifth. Production has dropped some this year, to 16.5 million birds from 17 million in each of the previous three years, said the USDA. That’s down from the 10-year high of 25.5 million in 2002. (There are, in comparison, 6.2 million residents in Missouri.)

But turkey production matters: The industry provided almost 6,000 jobs and an economic impact of nearly $2 billion last year, according to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. The U.S. is the world’s largest turkey producer and the largest exporter of turkey products, per the National Turkey Federation — which makes sense because turkeys are native to the Americas.

Higher feed prices, worker shortages and a marked increase in demand caused the price of all Thanksgiving staples, including the traditional broad-breasted white birds, to rise this year. In addition, many farmers were cautious with production this year, the AP reported earlier this month, in anticipation of another pandemic-affected holiday. As a result, the cost of your garden-variety frozen hens and toms was up about 25%, according to the latest USDA sales data.

The larger-scale turkey producers, such as Butterball and Cargill, had drops in production and sales, said John Bryan, of the Missouri Poultry Federation.

(Unusually, they produced more large birds than years past, he said. A worker shortage meant the birds weren’t brought into the barn as soon as they usually were, which caused them to grow larger. Bryan picks up turkeys donated by Cargill for church dinners, and he noticed the extra-large size. “We get these great big ones,” Bryan said.)

Small farms, however, said their niche drew more customers this year.

“That’s our thing,” said Benne, who runs her St. Charles farm with her husband, Ron, 71. She raises a specialty breed, the “broad-breasted bronze” — which runs $4.99 a pound — and she said clients like the taste and the free-range ethics.

Otherwise, she continued, they wouldn’t keep coming back.

By Thanksgiving eve, Buttonwood Farm, situated in California, Missouri, just west of Jefferson City, was sold clean out of birds for the big dinner. Owner Matt Tiefenbrun, 34, agreed with Benne that demand had legs this year.

“It’s been good,” he said. He estimated the farm sold about 1,800 turkeys this year, compared with 1,700 last year and 1,200 the year before.

Some return to normalcy changed his clientele this year. Last year, with families at home cooking smaller meals, retail sales, especially of smaller birds, were hot. And fewer restaurants were buying. This year, restaurants gobbled up more of his stock, Tiefenbrun said. And a demand for larger birds returned.

Harr Family Farms, a four-decade-old Illinois farm that sells at St. Louis’ Soulard Market, saw an increase in demand as well as in feed prices, as Tiefenbrun did. The cost of corn has nearly doubled since 2019, said Bryan Harr, 35.

Still, it wasn’t a bad year for the farm near Millstadt.

“With our particular situation, I feel like we made more just because there were more sales, so I might make less on one turkey than I did in 2019,” Harr said. “But I sold a lot more, too.”

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