JVG_211115_FOOD_1

A worker stocks frozen turkeys at Daniel’s Sentry in Janesville. National analysts have feared shortages and price hikes for frozen turkeys as a national supply chain crisis continues into Thanksgiving. Local grocers, farmers and food pantries say they’re seeing other shortages but that the supply of turkeys has been adequate.

JANESVILLE

This Thanksgiving, Rock County residents might find it harder and more expensive to get ingredients for side dishes and desserts.

But a feared turkey shortage that has made headlines across the U.S. has not seemed to manifest itself here.

National news reports and federal agricultural authorities for weeks have sounded the alarm over fears that supply chain breakdowns continue to leave some regions of the U.S. short on poultry and other meats.

Analysts have been warning since this summer that supply chain bottlenecks, driven in large part by the pandemic’s effect on production and shipping, could lead to shortages and price hikes for frozen turkeys this holiday.

The crisis is real, and while national analysts say it has led to recent jumps in prices on certain items, the exact effects vary from one local market to the next.

Bob Kellner, store manager at Daniel’s Sentry on Janesville’s west side, said he hasn’t seen any shortfalls recently in the amount of frozen turkeys shipped to his store.

But he said shoppers were more aggressive earlier in the fall in buying up the broad-chested birds. Normally, the Thanksgiving Day buying frenzy doesn’t heat up until mid-November, Kellner said.

This year, he said, shoppers began buying turkeys in force starting in late October.

“The whole freezer bin full will just empty the same day they come in,” Kellner said, but he noted that his supermarket this month has continued to “almost fully capitalize” on its frozen turkey orders from suppliers.

Kellner said the same can’t be said for another popular holiday meat: canned and packaged hams. Also in short supply this fall, Kellner said, is one popular fresh herb many use in recipes for Thanksgiving stuffing: sage.

Talk of turkey shortages has one local farmer scratching his head, too.

For years, town of Darien farmer Dale Wheelock has sold some of the turkeys he raises on his small family farm to customers who relish farm-to-table Thanksgiving birds.

Wheelock said he is already sold out of Thanksgiving birds this year, but that’s partially because he only raises about half as many for sale as the 50 or 60 birds he used to raise.

Wheelock said he doesn’t think there’s a major shortfall in the number of turkeys being raised on farms small or large.

His main business in birds is selling baby turkeys to other farm operators. Even during the past few pandemic years, Wheelock said he has not seen much change in the number of young turkeys he sold.

For farms large and small, one challenge is finding meat processors who can handle the work.

Wheelock said some local meat lockers are booked well into next year on processing beef and pork. It has left fewer local butchers this year able to deal with locally grown turkeys.

Some area butchers, he said, simply went out of business since the pandemic hit, leaving fewer options for small-scale farmers to process their meat and get it to market.

At least one viral social media post falsely suggested it might be cheaper to illegally hunt turkeys and incur a fine than to buy a bird from a supermarket. Such claims seem to fall apart under closer inspection of some actual turkey prices at local supermarkets.

National averages for frozen turkeys are now at about $1.40 a pound, according to USDA data. That’s a 25% increase in costs. That is jarring and it’s prompting some to buy smaller turkeys, but when applied to 15- or 20-pound turkeys, it still adds up to less than the $83 one such post claimed as the cost of a store-bought turkey.

Also, USDA analysts say, some grocers this holiday might mark down frozen whole turkeys at prices near or even below their own cost.

The turkey then becomes something of a bargaining chip to lure consumers to shell out more for other canned, boxed or baked goods for their Thanksgiving dinners. Those types of products are also susceptible to the whims of the supply chain, analysts say.

One local chain grocery store where Wheelock shops showed abrupt price cuts recently on frozen turkey, with the cost of big birds slashed from an earlier price of $1.60 per pound earlier this fall to 89 cents a pound, he said.

Jessica Locher, director of Janesville-based nonprofit food pantry ECHO, said the organization this year has more clients seeking food benefits who describe themselves as multifamily households.

It is one trend in an ongoing crunch in affordable housing and also an indication that food and housing, two costs that are often linked, are beginning to become more unattainable for some.

She said fears over supply chain disruptions prompted her agency to order frozen turkeys and other food items for ECHO’s annual Thanksgiving basket drive two months earlier than usual.

ECHO worked with Daniel’s Sentry, which Locher said gives the agency a discounted rate.

The grocer was able to supply the agency’s order for 600 frozen turkeys—one for each family that signed up for a holiday food basket.

But there was one kink with the baskets’ dessert: a pumpkin pie shortfall.

Kellner, the Sentry manager, said his store was only able to get ECHO about half the 600 pumpkin pies the nonprofit ordered. Kellner said a pie supplier got bogged down this fall amid rolling shortages in common ingredients and a labor crunch.

Locher said the solution was simple. She found a source of 300 apple pies to plug the gap.

Kellner called the pie shortfall a “blessing” for the store. It helped him take stock of where some of the true fault lines lay in a supply chain crisis Kellner thinks will continue to roll out through the food-heavy holiday season.

“The pie problem helped us do our due diligence early. It’s all become more and more complicated,” Kellner said. But now we can make sure we place orders properly to get product like pies here when they’re in biggest demand.”

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