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Turkeys take center stage at Christmas

For producers, this is the busiest part of the year, as traditional dinners abound

What’s better than a turkey at the center of a traditional Christmas dinner? Why, two turkeys, of course.

That’s certainly how Brian Ricker sees it, though as chair of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario (TFO), he might be inclined to think that way.

“We’ve already had two turkey dinners in the last 10 days,” he said this week from his poultry farm in Dunnville.

Over the holidays, he won’t be alone. Figures from last Christmas show 31 per cent of Canadian households purchased turkey and turkey products. Some 2.4 million whole turkeys made their way to our homes.

The market for whole birds – the kind we take home from the store to fill with stuffing as part of our Christmas dinner, that is – accounts for about half of what’s produced by turkey farmers. Of that half, about 40 per cent are sold at Christmas, making this time of year a fundamental part of the industry.

Overall, about 80 per cent of the whole-bird sales come at the big three “festives,” a list that includes Thanksgiving and Easter, said Ricker.

The other half of the turkeys raised go to the process market, made into an assortment of offerings, from drumsticks to soups.

It’s that market that turkey farmers are eager to grow, promoting the meat’s virtues not just at holidays.

“We’re trying to move consumers that way. We’d like to sell turkey all year long,” he said.

“It’s very well known that turkey is a very lean, low-fat protein. We want people to think about that all through the year,” he said, noting that turkeys are abundant in stores at holiday time, but not always so readily available at other times.

A turkey farmer for some 20 years, Bloomingdale’s Kevin Snyder is very familiar with the seasonal nature of the business. He, too, supports TFO’s diversification efforts, as evidenced by his farm store’s selection of turkey breasts, sausages and ground meat, among other turkey offerings.

“Turkey Farmers has done a wonderful job of promoting diversification,” he said, pointing to the growth of options.

That’s where the processing market comes into play, promoting tasty and easy turkey options that don’t involve a whole turkey with all the trimmings.

“Ground turkey is much lower in fat and salt, and it’s just like any other [animal] protein in how it’s used, said Ricker. “It’s the easiest switch that you can make.”

Turkey farmers are promoting all kinds of recipes and uses for turkey to get that message across.

Canadians are buying turkey – some 154 million kilograms of it last year, about 51 million kg at the retail level – but it’s still a small market compared to chicken, for example.

Right now, however, it’s all about Christmas dinner. With that in mind, Ricker is very much in favour of a white Christmas.

“When it’s cold and snowy, more people are able to think about staying inside and having a nice turkey dinner,” he laughed.

Sales have been strong, Ricker notes, and the industry is doing well. In particular, there’s been steady growth in the sale of fresh turkeys.

“The fresh market is alive and well in Ontario, and in Canada,” he said of consumer interest in fresh, rather than frozen turkeys.

Perhaps it’s part of the foodie movement, and a reflection of a growing interest in traditional food and methods, but it’s fine with farmers, he said, noting he typically opts for frozen.

“I can’t tell the difference in taste, myself.”

In that, he’s in complete agreement with Snyder, who’s a proponent of frozen turkeys.

“I believe frozen is best. A frozen bird is just as good as a fresh bird.”

Fresh or frozen, there’s still plenty of traditions families deal with in preparing Christmas dinner, whether it’s a longstanding recipe for stuffing, arguing the merits of white or dark meat,  or squabbling over who gets the drumsticks.

As the father of eight children, Ricker says he knows a great deal about the last one on the list, as kids do seem to enjoy the drumsticks, limited to just two on any bird.

Pointing to a bag of drumsticks, Snyder says there’s a solution to that dilemma: pick up a few extras.

At this time of year, doling out advice is a regular part of selling turkeys at the farm gate, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of his business just now. That number grows as the local food and buy-local movements expand, he notes.

“People get to know exactly where their food comes from,” said Snyder.

That group includes people who may not have a whole lot of experience with cooking a traditional turkey dinner.

“I’ve had many people here who say, ‘I’ve never cooked one before,’” he said, noting he’s happy to walk them through the process.

“A thermometer is your best friend,” he adds in warning about overcooking the bird.

It’s been a busy stretch leading up to Christmas, as while some people come in well ahead of the holidays to pick up a frozen turkey, others wait until later, which is fine as long as they give themselves enough time to deal with the thaw.

Busy now with a steady stream of customers, some of whom are long-time regulars, Snyder said he’d be happy to see them return anytime, not just for the holidays.

“I’d like to see them more times of the year,” he laughed.

That’s certainly the goal of TFO’s diversification efforts. Right now, however, there are tables to laden with Christmas dinner.

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