Plan ahead, because a table without a bird is like a holiday tree with no presents.
Traditional greek turkey and chestnut stuffing on a silver platter garnished with sliced oranges and fresh herbs.
Credit: Meredith Food Services

You might roll your eyes at everyone who runs to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte in August and actively avoid Hobby Lobby aisles of Christmas décor in September. We know, we know: Jumping too far ahead on holidays perpetuates their commercialization. But this year, you might want to get a head start on Thanksgiving in October. If this November holiday won't feel like a holiday to you without a turkey, consider hitting the grocery store well in advance this season to guarantee you'll bring home the bird.

What the Turkey Market Looks Like in 2021

Ray Rastelli Jr., president of Rastelli Foods Group, a food-service company based in Swedesboro, N.J., says supply for turkey has been extremely limited this year. "Never before has demand been this high, with supply this limited," he says. In the past, most suppliers — like grocery stores — have had a plentiful supply of frozen turkeys in preparation for the Thanksgiving rush, he adds. This year, requests for turkeys are coming in later: Stores are placing purchase orders in October rather than the typical spring because they've exhausted their normal suppliers, who unfortunately don't have enough product to fill their needs, says Rastelli.

FYI, the turkey-growing process can take between 12-24 weeks, depending on the size, breed, and feed, says Dave Perozzi, operator of Wrong Direction Farm in Canajoharie, New York and member of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. That means turkey growers made decisions about numbers long before they knew what Thanksgiving 2021 might look like. Perozzi adds that planning for turkey numbers and sizes is always a gamble; sometimes farmers are stuck with unsold turkeys, where other years they sell out too early.

The Turkey Supply Chain

This year, the supply chain may be of greater issue than the actual supply, however. Corwin Heatwole, a chicken farmer in Harrisonburg, Va., who's also CEO of Farmer Focus, says he had hoped to raise organic heritage turkeys this year, as he did in 2020, but could not do so because of the limited capacity of processors. He adds that due to the heavy consolidation of the meat industry, he's seeing limits on the processing side across the supply chain.

As is true for many other industries, Covid has indeed impacted the turkey production supply chain, says Jim Chakeres, executive vice president for the Ohio Poultry Association, which represents more than 1,000 turkey, egg and chicken farmers across the state. Other factors such as the current workforce shortage are also impacting the industry, Chakeres says. However, he is optimistic about turkey availability, suggesting that frozen turkey inventory is great enough that no panic buying is needed. "Consumers can rest assured there will be enough turkeys available this holiday season," he says, adding that it's still a good idea to plan ahead and buy early, and check in with your local retailers to find out when and where turkeys will be available. This is especially true if you're looking for a fresh turkey, a specific size turkey or a particular cut, such as a bone-in breast. (Learn what type of turkey is best for your holiday table, and how much turkey you need per person.)

Utilizing Your Freezer

In 2020, many Americans opted for small turkeys, celebrating Thanksgiving with only small groups of immediate family. A Butterball survey conducted in September found that about one-third of consumers are considering a smaller gathering again for 2021, so demand for small turkeys could run high, says Rebecca Welch, senior brand manager of seasonal business for Butterball. She adds that consumers should start seeing Butterball turkeys in grocery stores by early November. Whether you plan to buy a pre-frozen turkey and keep it in the freezer until it's go-time, or buy a fresh turkey and freeze it, be sure to keep food safety top of mind, allotting 1 day of refrigerator thaw time for every 4 pounds of turkey, says Welch. (If you have more questions about safely thawing and cooking turkey, you can always call the Turkey Talk-Line.)

Look Beyond the Grocery Store

It may seem a little strange, but don't overlook the option for buying turkeys online. Retailers such as Omaha Steaks sell a wide variety of turkey options that you may not be able to find in a typical grocery store, such as whole smoked turkeys and small, fully cooked turkey breasts. Brian Fowler, vice president of procurement and product development for the company, says fresh turkeys will be more difficult to find this year because they require "just-in-time" labor, which means bringing in workers for a specific time frame — harder to do with the current workforce shortage. Fowler suggests shopping at least a month before Thanksgiving to ensure a stress-free holiday.

With all of that in mind, the answer to when to buy your Thanksgiving turkey this year is: as soon as possible. "If you see a turkey in your local store or online, we recommend purchasing it immediately and freezing it," says Rastelli. He adds that a vacuum-sealed turkey can be safely stored in your freezer for up to 12 months, so you won't have to worry about it going bad before Thanksgiving.

Another Bonus to Buying Early

Besides ensuring you'll actually have a bird to cook on the big day, buying your turkey early means you may get a better deal, too. Rastelli says turkey prices may rise close to the holidays as demand increases and inventory decreases.

If worst comes to worst and you can't find a turkey this Thanksgiving, consider alternative roasts like duck, rack of lamb, ham or prime rib, says Rastelli. But again, the key is to prepare early: Even with these meats, he adds, you should pre-order or buy now and freeze.

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