At Bob’s Turkey Farm in Lancaster, Sue Miner and her staff breed 7,000 turkeys for the Thanksgiving season annually. They typically run out of the domestic, broad-breasted birds the Sunday before the holiday.
This year, they’re all already reserved.
“Every turkey on the farm is spoken for,” said Miner, a part owner and treasurer who started at Bob’s 37 years ago. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Though flocks of wild turkeys run amok in New England — you might be tempted to pick one up off the street (don’t) — families may have a more difficult time putting the birds on their table in less than two weeks.
Production of frozen turkeys is down compared to last year, and the nationwide inventory sat 24 percent lower than the three-year average in August, according to the US Department of Agriculture. But retailers and farmers said sky-high demand and supply chain disruptions are what have truly pounded the turkey market.
Three Massachusetts farms that spoke with the Globe are out of fresh birds. At grocery stores, there are slimmer pickings when it comes to frozen turkeys, and prices may be steeper, according to William Masters, an agricultural economist at Tufts University.
“We’ve just gone through 20 months of terribleness,” he said. “For those of us who can get back together, it’s a very special Thanksgiving, and they want a turkey. "
Nine in 10 Americans are planning a traditional Thanksgiving this year, according to a survey from poultry producer Butterball. But one-third of consumers are, again, opting for smaller gatherings. (To note, more Americans choose frozen over fresh birds, though the exact breakdown is unclear.)
Miner said her customers’ turkey-buying frenzy was likely influenced by news of supply chain shortages that have caused a shortfall in everything from books and electronics to dry ice and refrigerators.
Adrian Collins, co-owner of Out Post Farm, agreed. The Holliston turkey farm breeds 5,000 turkeys for Thanksgiving and rarely runs out. They were all booked by Nov. 8 this season, even though Collins raised prices by 10 percent due to a rise in grain-feed costs. Dozens of longtime customers — families who flocked to Out Post for 30 to 40 years — are going to be left without a bird, he said.
“I cannot figure what happened for the life of me,” Collins said. “It seemed like people panicked, and they called. There was a certain level of nervousness.”
Masters, the economist, argued that Americans have hopped on turkey-shopping early because they have more money to spend — and some pent-up excitement for the holidays. Compared to 2020, people have been spending $765 more per month in total, according to the MassMutual Consumer Spending & Saving Index from August.
“Many people have come out of the COVID recession with strong bank accounts, up and down the income spectrum,” Masters said.
The decrease in turkey inventory and the rise in cost are affected by the same supply chain issues impacting virtually every other product. “Turkeys aren’t so different from tennis balls,” Masters added. Manufacturers are plagued by labor shortages, and the dearth of truck drivers continues to hinder distribution. Higher corn prices also have pushed feed prices up, forcing cost increases for farmers.
But frozen turkeys are still available for now, as a number of local retailers said they had prepared for higher demand. That said, if customers are looking for a specific size, the earlier they shop, the better.
Arthur Ackles, vice president of merchandising and buying at Roche Bros., said the Mansfield-based supermarket chain has seen a 50 percent increase in demand for frozen turkeys compared to years prior.
“Don’t panic, don’t hoard,” Ackles said. “But buy it soon.”
Butterball, which produces one-third of American Thanksgiving turkeys, charted out its plans as early as last February and shipped frozen birds out a month early. Al Jansen, the company’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the decision was sparked by USDA statistics from January that showed a very low stockpile of frozen turkeys in storage.
The number of Butterball turkeys distributed and their price now appears to be similar to 2020, Jansen said.
Star Market said in a statement that “certain categories [of turkeys] might be constrained as we near the holiday,” but that the quantity of turkeys remains on par with previous seasons. Stop & Shop said its stores are “well-positioned” for the month, too. Wegmans is in “good shape,” according to a spokesperson.
Still, customers should “act fast,” said Jansen, the Butterball executive. Otherwise, there may be a turkey-shaped hole on their Thanksgiving table, somewhere between the cranberries and green beans.
Or maybe, this is finally the year to go vegetarian.