It is among Norman Rockwell’s most recognized paintings, known alternately as “Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture.” The aproned matriarch proffering the burnished bird, extended family leaning in toward chafing dish and wobbly aspic.
This spring, turkey farmers around the country had to roll the dice, take a guess: What would pandemic Thanksgiving look like? Would the holiday be canceled entirely, or would it be the Norman Rockwell grandpa carving en masque?
The coronavirus pandemic will interrupt 50 years of steadily increasing turkey consumption, threatening to change holiday traditions forever. Social distancing and travel challenges will mean more, smaller holiday gatherings this November — thus smaller home-cooked turkeys on the table, fewer holiday restaurant reservations and, in an increasing number of households, no turkey at all.
The shift in demand for this most seasonal of commercial animal proteins is causing havoc for turkey farmers, processors and retailers who typically solidify their plans months ahead of the holiday season.
At the country’s 2,500 turkey farms, farmers are trying to predict demand and processing schedules, fear they will be stuck with too many big turkeys and not enough small ones. Processing plant operators, contending with a shorter harvest window and greater handwork in the slaughterhouse, are trying to reduce their workers’ vulnerability to the COVID-19 outbreaks that have ravaged poultry and beef processing plants.
Retailers are scrambling to pivot in real time to more finished meals-to-go, turkey-by-the-pound, turkey parts or even plant-based products to accommodate shifts in demand.
In New Carlisle, Ohio, about an hour north of Cincinnati, Drew Bowman raises 70,000 free-range turkeys annually on 145 acres at Bowman and Landes Turkeys. In a normal year, 40 percent of Bowman’s business takes place in November and December for holiday meals.
“We always get anxious before the holidays. It’s our busiest time of the year by far, with more work to be done, longer hours, and there are always things that can go wrong,” Bowman says. “But just like any other person, this has been a year with a lot of emotions, with so much uncertainty, and as a small-business owner, it keeps you up at night worrying about the ramifications. There are a lot of unknowns for us right now…” The Washington Post