Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, yuletide carols being sung by choirs – yes, these Nat King Cole-approved images are staples of the holiday season. But for millions of eager carnivores, no holiday season would be compete without the annual Christmas turkey.For local turkey farmers, Christmas is the day that the entire year is building towards.
“We’re already looking into next year, as far as ordering chicks and stuff. And we actually place birds in late-May,” said Dan Goetz of Shady Grove Turkey Farm, who estimates that 80 per cent of his annual business comes from Thanksgiving and Christmas (roughly 40 per cent each).
Turkey Farmers of Canada report that in 2012, some 40.6 per cent of Canadian households (5.5 million) bought turkey products for Christmas, and 3.9 million bought a whole turkey. In other words, 44 per cent of all whole turkeys sold in 2012.
This comes on top of similar numbers just one month earlier: 3.1 million whole turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving (35 per cent of the annual volume), with five million households purchasing some kind of turkey product.
But even though turkey remains a Christmas mainstay, Goetz and other turkey farmers always find themselves adapting to stay alive on a year-by-year basis.
“It kind of goes with the economy,” he said. “When the economy is booming, people tend to order bigger birds at Christmas and Thanksgiving. It’s a reward time, you know? They base how lavishly they do their holidays on if things are going well.”
As a result, independent turkey farms like Shady Grove took a hit with the recession in 2008.
“When we had the downturn in the economy, it was hard getting rid of turkeys. People were just going and getting the 99-cent special at the grocery store and being done with that. But since it’s been improving, things have been ramping up again.”
He added, “We’re also victims of the commodity market. If corn and soybeans are way high, that means it costs us more to produce the birds.”
Shady Grove, a niche turkey farm that uses no growth hormones or other drugs, has been able to weather the hard times through word of mouth.
“We have a billboard sign and fridge magnets, and when we’re selling out maple syrup at the farm or at a market, we try to spur people into thinking about turkey when it comes time. But 80-90 per cent is repeat business, and it just grows steadily and slowly.”
So: what is a year in the life of a turkey farmer, from Christmas to Christmas?
“Well, we figure out what our stores that we supplied used last year and we try to hit that number, plus a little bit more, usually – it’s never easy. Then we place our chicks accordingly so that they’re sized when they go for processing so at Thanksgiving and Christmas they’ll be the proper dressed weight.”
He continues, “Basically, you raise the birds right from chicks. The barns are all automated to keep the temperature to a degree all the way through, which is done through a series of fans and ventilation. The feeders are automatic, the water is automatic, there are alarms if something should go wrong with the climate.
“And basically, when we get close to Thanksgiving – the week before – we load them on trucks, get them on crates, and send them up to the slaughterhouses in Hawkesville and Elora.”
But, of course, the work doesn’t end there. “We go up and box them, put them on trucks, and take them to all the different stores we cater.”
So rest assured, fellow Turkey enthusiasts: when you’ve loosened your belt after a long Christmas fest, the next year’s bird will already be wobbling towards your dinner plate.