JOHNSTON, R.I. — When Donald Baffoni ordered turkey chicks for his family-owned poultry farm in December 2019, the novel coronavirus wasn’t even a consideration.
By May and June, though, he had 1,500 little turkeys to raise — and a Thanksgiving season where even the classic scene in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” would violate COVID-19 restrictions.
The pandemic had upended the usual demands for those “go big or go home” turkeys to feed large gatherings. Baffoni, one of the owners of Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston, said they were faced with a difficult question for the first time in the farm’s 85 years: What are we going to do with these big birds?
Frank Martinelli, owner of Martinelli’s Farm and Charcuterie in Scituate, said he ordered his turkeys in January. “Then, we were talking about, ‘Are we going to get stuck with them?’” he said.
Fearing the worst for their businesses, the independent turkey farmers were included in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The National Turkey Federation, which represents the turkey industry, urged the public to “Take Back Thanksgiving.”
This Thanksgiving may be more like “Zoomsgiving,” with restrictions on travel and the size of gatherings changing the look of traditional feasts.
What hasn’t changed: People still want those turkeys. But instead of requests for huge, 25-pound birds to feed a crowd, local poultry growers say they are inundated with orders for smaller, 10- or 12-pound ones.
“Customer demand is strong, but they’re looking for small turkeys,” said Martinelli. “People are saying there’s just three or four or six of us. No one is saying that they’re having 20 people.”
The turkey farmers have had to adapt.
Though his poultry farm prides itself on selling fresh turkeys (it has an on-site slaughterhouse), Baffoni said the family decided to process and freeze 40 turkeys early, when they reached 18 pounds. Other large birds are being cut up into parts, and Baffoni said there are more orders this year “by far” for turkey breasts.
Still, “everyone has the Norman Rockwell vision in mind, and very few people want to go out with half a turkey,” Baffoni said.
Being willing to pivot has paid off: Poultry farmers in Rhode Island say they have either sold out or are close to selling out of turkeys for Thanksgiving. They attribute some of the demand to a side effect of the pandemic: people searching for locally grown produce and meats.
“When they had the shortage at the markets and panic buying, so many people have discovered it’s so much better buying from the farmers,” Baffoni said. “My store is triple the business every single day. We feel so great to connect with the community. I’m sorry it had to take a pandemic to get out word of mouth.”
That success speaks to the resilience of local growers, said Branden Lewis, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Food Innovation & Technology and head of the university’s new Sustainable Food Systems program.
“When our national supply chains started break down here, who was here? Our local farmers … they’ve been able to support local families," Lewis said. "People are reconnecting with their local food system.”
Lewis said he’s buying his turkey from Timberdoodle Farm in Scituate, as usual. What’s unusual for him: He’s buying just one turkey this year instead of two because he’ll have far fewer guests at the table.
Lewis will brine the bird using the family recipe — five quarts of water to one cup of kosher salt and one cup of sugar, four to eight large garlic cloves, peppercorns, bunches of thyme, and a few juniper berries — then fry it in his Butterball XL Electric Fryer.
Lewis is trying a new tradition this year: offering to make and deliver Thanksgiving dinner to friends who are sick or stuck at home and unable to cook.
He’ll bring his two children with him to deliver the meals — and show them the real meaning of Thanksgiving.
“It can be charming,” Lewis said. “You can make it a memory for them, instead of this horrible time.”