Thanksgiving Woes of Kansas Turkey Producers

KANSAS, US - Some turkey producers call Kansas home but the businesses face obstacles, even in the run-up to Thanksgiving
calendar icon 6 November 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

Recent crisp fall weather conjures thoughts of cranberries, pumpkin pie, and Grandma´s dressing - not to mention the star of the holiday table – turkey with all the trimmings.

Some of those turkeys may have been raised in Kansas, typically under contract to large processing companies with plants in other states.

Despite its close proximity to some major processors and a rich history as a grain producer, however, Kansas is not a major turkey producer, said Scott Beyer, animal scientist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Dr Beyer said: "From what producers and prospective producers tell me, the tax environment they have to work in makes it difficult for growers who produce animals under contract.

"It's possible that some revision to the tax structure could benefit our rural areas by creating a more hospitable business environment for them. States immediately around us – Oklahoma, Nebraska and Missouri – are major poultry producing states, with lots of jobs associated with the industry."

The 2007 Census of Agriculture reported that 1,184,840 turkeys were sold from 83 farms in Kansas. The census is conducted every five years.

Although no official count is kept on the number of turkeys produced in Kansas year-to-year, Dr Beyer, who has guided K-State poultry judging teams to national championships, estimates that about 1.3 million turkeys a year typically are produced in Kansas. That compares with US Department of Agriculture data from 2008 which put Minnesota as the No. 1 producer at 48 million turkeys and North Carolina No. 2 at 40 million. Kansas neighbour, Missouri, ranked fourth at 18 million turkeys and Iowa was at No. 10 with 9 million.

Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch near Lindsborg, Kansas, said that the biggest obstacle for his business is the lack of a large-scale, federally inspected independent turkey processor in Kansas.

The producer, who has built an international reputation for producing heritage, or standard bred breeds, ships his turkeys to Harrison, Ohio for processing.

The long-time producer, who has raised turkeys the old-fashioned way for more than 50 years, out on pastures rather than in confinement buildings, said that 50 to 60 years ago, Kansas was a prominent turkey-producing state. That was when every town had its own butcher and several farmers – mostly women – had laying hens.

"Kansas was No. 1 in dried egg production," said Mr Reese, adding that dried eggs were an important staple in American homes at one time.

"After World War II, the industry started changing," he said, adding that most turkeys now are a far cry from the old-time breeds that he believes have a superior taste and are genetically hardier.

"Most turkeys today have been bred to produce more white meat and to more quickly grow to market weight than did turkeys raised in the 1950s and before. With those changes in most modern-day breeds, turkeys cannot breed naturally and must be artificially inseminated," he said.

Heritage breed turkeys mate naturally, he said, and because they take 24 to 28 weeks to reach market weight – twice as long as those grown in confinement, they are "pricier."

A USDA report from 17 September estimated that in July, US turkey production was down 11 per cent at 486 million pounds, compared with a year earlier.

Dr Beyer noted that like other meat producers, turkey producers have been caught between high production costs and somewhat decreased consumption because of the economic downturn.

He said: "Feed and diesel costs were huge problems last year. Everyone was cutting back. Then came reductions in restaurant orders as meals eaten out went down. Turkey is big in the deli, so I imagine that hurt as well.

"Turkey consumption has been very stable in the US at about 18 pounds per person annually."

He added that even with a recession-related softening of demand, he does not expect much change to that 18-pound-per-capita figure when the final data comes in for 2009.

Mr Beyer said that in the past year, corn prices rose fast and turkey prices could not keep pace.

"Had all this happened over the long haul instead of just weeks, the markets would have adjusted," he said. "There is no doubt many growers lost their livelihood as a consequence of the rush to tie the corn price to ethanol."

Because of the economic squeeze, many mid-sized producers shuttered their doors last year and others cut back on production, he said. For that reason, Mr Beyer said he would not be surprised to see fewer turkeys in supermarket coolers and freezers this year, coupled with higher prices.

Mr Reese, who sells chicks to about 15 other growers in Kansas and contracts with them to buy them back at maturity, said Good Shepherd Farm has weathered the economic downturn well so far. The company, which has been featured in USA Today and the Kansas City Star among others, sells directly to consumers through its web site but also to restaurants and grocery stores.

He believes that because of labor costs, most poultry will eventually be raised and processed outside the United States, but still controlled by US companies. The meat will then be brought back into the US to supply consumer needs.

But Mr Reese, who is a fourth generation Kansas farmer, plans for his heritage breeds – the Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, White Holland and Black Turkey – to continue to be raised in Kansas.

"Our mission is all about preserving genetic diversity," he said. "We want shoppers to have the choice between a heritage turkey, the traditional taste of the past, and a commercial turkey."

When asked what trends he expects in coming years, Mr Beyer said he believes that the turkey business will need to find ways to increase consumption and develop more export business.

"New products are needed. That's what pulls any agriculture product up in the market place," Mr Beyer said.

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