Prepping a Thanksgiving turkey requires a little work: Thaw, clean, season and stuff it.
But the forethought doesn’t start with your freezer.
Jared Stotts, owner of Stotts Turkey Farms in Loretto, said farming turkeys is a “long, drawn-out schedule,” just one reason why adding COVID to the mix has thrown the turkey business for a loop.
Ahead of Thanksgiving, farmers and field experts say what’s on the table this year will likely look smaller, literally.
Everyone in the turkey industry had to pivot this year, said Sarah Anderson, executive director with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
First, farmers had to address the immediate concern of keeping staff safe. Then came the question of how to prepare for a Thanksgiving like no other, even if it was already too late to completely scrap plans.
“It’s kind of like we had to do it all,” Anderson said. “Fortunately, we’re an industry that’s always prepared for the best and worst-case scenario.”
Jared Stotts, owner of Stotts Turkey Farms, manages 7.5 million pounds of turkeys annually. He owns three turkey farms — one hen (female) and two tom (male) farms. He sells to Jennie-O Turkey Store.
As the pandemic entered the picture, Stotts said Jennie-O expected demand for smaller birds than usual. Less people are likely to gather in larger groups this year, opting instead for a night in with immediate family to reduce the spread of COVID.
Stotts said his farms will probably send off more 14- or 15-pound turkeys than 21-pound birds this holiday season.
“Those are way more sought out for demand now,” he said, referring to the slighter cuts.
But that means selling birds when they’re not quite ready.
“We actually shipped a flock early that was supposed to be heavy hens here just to help Jennie-O fill that pipeline,” Stotts said.
Birds are raised in a stacked fashion: Once smaller birds grow up, another round of turkeys are already being raised to replace the outgoing flock.
When birds are removed early from that system, there are gaps.
“I had to sell the flocks basically four weeks early because that’s what the market needed. I ended up sitting with empty barns, supposed to be designed to be full of turkeys,” Stotts said.
And those turkeys are designed to be bigger.
Farmers often use different breeding tactics for hens and toms, said Megan Roberts, agriculture business management educator with the University of Minnesota’s Extension program. It ensures birds have the right ratio of white to dark meat; protein to fat.
But farmers didn’t get the chance to plan for smaller birds this year, at least not soon enough.
“If you’ve already committed to that larger bird, it is what it is at this point,” Roberts said.
It’s a risky game, and one that affects farmers financially. Payments are based on pounds, not per head.
“You get more money if you have a bigger bird,” Stotts said.
The tom market in particular, which tends to produce bigger birds, has been hit perhaps hardest by COVID, Stotts said. Tom meat is used for larger servings and processed meats, like sandwich slices or ground turkey for schools and restaurants, which aren’t operating like they used to.
Anderson said farmers are currently applying for state aid from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to alleviate some of that loss. It’s similar to what turkey farmers went through during a 2015 avian influenza outbreak, she said.
Local grocery stores are seeing a change in Thanksgiving prep this year, too.
Staff at Radermacher’s Fresh Market in Jordan expect to sell far more turkeys this year — but mostly the smaller ones. Store Director Kelly Callahan thinks 70 to 100 more birds could fly out the door this year. The reason is simple, he said.
“There are smaller groups at home,” Callahan said.
That means the 12- to 14-pound turkeys, versus last year’s 16- to 18-pounders, are likely contenders this time around.
Callahan also said more people are requesting the market’s annual bags for local food shelves, which include turkeys and other Thanksgiving goods.
“We’re getting a lot of requests, more than usual,” he said. “More people are more focused on (what) you see every day on the news: Unemployed, homeless ... I think there’s focus on that.”
Cooper’s Foods in Chaska is gearing up for a change in meat sales too.
“We’ve got pallets of turkeys,” President Gary Cooper said, noting more of them are smaller than last year’s bunch.
If the store doesn’t sell all the fresh turkeys, they’ll cut them up. The reason?
“Instead of big family gatherings, there’s going to be people wanting to do a turkey for two,” he said. “If a couple wants a turkey dinner, they can buy turkey breasts.”
The next week or so should give those in the turkey business a better idea of this year’s demand, Roberts said. Guesses can be made, but only time will truly tell how big of a seat COVID has at the turkey table.
“Will turkey fare OK? At this point it is looking like, while demand has shifted, they might still,” Roberts said. “Demand right now does appear to be holding steady even as people shift their holiday plans.”
Stotts said at least one good thing has come out of this COVID crisis: People are finally seeing turkey as not-just-holiday food.
“The whole bird market has been good due to the fact that people aren’t going out. Instead of people making turkey twice a year for holidays, people are staying home,” he said.
That means easier-to-prepare turkeys are making their way to the consumer market, like meat that’s ready to pop in the oven straight from the grocery store.
He’s not sure how long it’ll take before larger birds are back in demand and schools are filled with hungry students again, ready for that Wednesday sub sandwich.
But farmers like Stotts are certain of one thing. COVID’s impact on turkeys has been big, even if the birds themselves are a little more compact this year.
Carver County is no longer “somewhat of an island” detached from COVID-19’s damage, Carver County Public Health Director Richard Scott said.
After months of seemingly keeping the virus stable, cases are rising rapidly — more than 300% in the last two weeks, Scott said, as of early this week.
Most-recent numbers show a cumulative case count of 3,348 in the county, according to the Minnesota Department of Health and Carver County Public Health. Just four weeks ago, that number was 1,697.
“I think COVID has now caught up. Obviously, COVID doesn’t respect boundaries,” Scott told the newspaper.
From mid-May to late October, daily increases hovered anywhere between 10 and 25 per day on average. In a drastic uptick, Monday brought 149 new daily cases and Tuesday saw 120.
“That is alarming,” Scott said.
The local positivity rate has increased faster than the testing rate, Scott said. That means community spread is to blame for higher cases, he said, not more testing.
“The actual positivity rate would normally go down if you’re seeing more testing without increased spread and we’re seeing just the opposite,” Scott said.
Most Carver County cases are among younger adults ages 18 to 34, with over 1,100 confirmed in total. The second-highest age group is 35- to 49-year-olds (804 cases), then 50- to 64-year-olds (701 cases). Children up to age 17 accounted for 459 cases and around 260 people 65 and older contracted the virus, as of Tuesday.
Scott said these numbers could be precursors to more grieving in the community.
“With that also comes increasing hospitalizations, and with that comes increasing deaths,” he said.
Total Carver County hospitalizations are at 108 and deaths are at 9, as of Tuesday. Deaths are relatively evenly-split among adults over 50 years old, broken into four-year categories with at least one death in each. The highest death counts were two 65- to 69-year-olds and two 85- to 89-year-olds.
Scott said he expects those numbers to rise.
“We have not experienced a significant increase in deaths across Carver County yet, but probably would have it that we would probably start experiencing more fatalities as well,” he said.
Chaska has the most confirmed total cases in Carver County at 959, per Tuesday numbers. Chanhassen has 673 cases, Waconia has 424, Victoria has 328 and Carver has 181.
New Germany and Hancock Township have the least number of total confirmed cases (12 and 18, respectively). The county has the lowest case rate in the seven-county metro area, according to the MDH.
Cases among Carver County schools have increased consistently since Sept. 20, most recently with a 39.44 case rate per 10,000 people (based on a 14-day case rate). Case rates for Carver County schools remained mostly steady from late June to mid-August, then went back down slightly until early September.
The Eastern Carver County School District were set to shift completely to distance learning Wednesday for all grades. The school board voted to do so at least through the remainder of 2020. Athletics and other activities were set to continue as of early this week.
Scott said the decision is reflective of an overall sense of urgency. People are starting to see the value of masks and acknowledging their protection over wearers and others, he said.
“There’s a change in understanding and appreciation of the value of mitigation we recommend,” he said.
The City of Chaska also moved to an all-virtual city council meeting platform this week and plans to reevaluate at the end of December. Previously, councilmembers had been meeting in-person at the Chaska Event Center where they could physically distance themselves.
In addition, the county’s Emergency Operations Center is considering measures within public safety and municipal services departments, Chaska City Administrator Matt Podhradsky said in a city report.
Those include maybe using more personal protective equipment, splitting staff into pods, weekly COVID testing for staff, and limiting employee contact during breaks, Podhradsky said.
More staff in other Chaska departments will return to working from home, he said. The City Hall reopening is delayed to keep the risk of spread down even though improvements are nearly complete.
“Our best opportunity of keeping our services moving forward at this time with as little interruption as possible is going to be to keep people distanced away from each other,” Podhradsky said.
Several Chaska City Council members urged neighbors to not gather outside their household this holiday season and encouraged people to get tested for COVID regardless of symptoms (or lack thereof).
As part of a pilot program beginning in late October, Carver County residents could request at-home COVID testing kits. Scott said the county was selected from two dozen counties in the state, but the program will be rolled out to all Minnesotans by the end of November.
There have been a few kinks so far, he said.
Requesting at-home saliva kits required a few things of residents: solid internet access, one email per person requesting a test including children, logging onto a telehealth appointment, and photos of insurance cards (though coverage is not required).
“That created a challenge for some folks. We need to rethink how much of that we really need moving forward,” Scott said.
He said at-home testing was always designed to be a “supplement,” not a substitute, for in-person tests. Scott said the county is still “far short” when it comes to testing capacity. People are still struggling to find nasal swab and saliva locations, he said.
As the temperature drops so does motivation to congregate outdoors.
“Any time you have situational changes that lead to more indoor gatherings as it relates to communicable disease, you’re going to see an increase in cases,” Scott said.
A month from now, he expects to see a rise in flu cases. More people are wearing masks this time around and physically distancing, so Scott said he hopes the flu won’t strike as hard this year. If it did, the burden on hospitals could be overwhelming.
Scott said he expects to see more Carver County COVID cases in the near future, following suit with surrounding areas.
“One way to look to see what the future is is to see what’s happening with our neighbors,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase from east to west. Usually the western part of our county is a week or so behind what we see in the eastern (part).”
The incoming holiday season could exacerbate that.
Looking back to Halloween, Scott said he the COVID increase likely did not stem directly from the holiday. But it’s not off the table.
“Obviously, any time people are using a reason to get together, that’s going to contribute to the spread,” he said, noting most spread comes from restaurants and social gatherings.
As the calendar moves further into the winter holiday season, cases could rise, he said.
“We certainly understand the need for people to get together and want to be with family,” Scott said. “It’s those situations that can often lead to greater spread.”
He encouraged people to alter their plans for traditional gatherings like Thanksgiving, opting for a shorter time of discomfort to help the community in the long run.