At Maine-ly Poultry in Warren, one of the largest turkey farms in the state, John Barnstein is raising 800 fewer birds this year — and not by choice.
In June, he was dismayed to find his Canadian supplier couldn’t fill his order. This was a first in his 25 years in business.
Farmers and grocers in Maine, and around the country, have been feeling the impact of virulent highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, that sent tremors through poultry farms across the country last spring and decimated turkey flocks by 7.5 million. There were no confirmed cases in Maine, but the scare is affecting growers here.
“Canada experienced the same problem. They concentrated on taking care of the Canadian farmers first,” said Barnstein, who spent June scrambling to find U.S. hatcheries with available young turkeys called poults.
He eventually purchased 2,000 broad breasted whites from Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the delay cost him three weeks. That on top of learning to raise an unfamiliar breed has given him pause. “It’s been a really screwed-up year,” Barnstein said. “I have no idea what I’m going to end up with.”
The situation is far more dire for commercial turkey producers.
Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory in Orono, said around the United States, 211 commercial poultry flocks were affected with HPAI this year compared to 21 noncommercial, small-scale operations.
The 2015 outbreak of HPAI reduced the United States’ commercial wholesale turkey supply by less than 10 of its total volume. As a result, the price of commercial turkeys will go up between 20 to 40 cents a pound, Lichtenwalner predicts.
“It’s still not clear why so few backyard flocks have tested positive for the virus,” Lichtenwalner said, adding the birds on the nation’s migratory flightways can carry the disease and free-range birds are at greater risk.
Though Maine has been spared thus far, “we shouldn’t relax,” warns the professor, who tracks the bird flu on her blog and offers tips for farmers to keep chickens and turkeys secure. “It’s still cycling through the wild bird population. So far, so good.”
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, will locally raised birds be in demand? Specialty grocers and co-ops in Maine are starting to find out.
“We are all freaked out,” said Toby Tarpinian, store manager at Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick, where orders for Thanksgiving have just begun.
As a member of the Minnesota-based Independent Natural Food Retailers Association, Tarpinian knows his counterparts in the Midwest are “highly alarmed.” His supplier, which happens to be Maine-ly Poultry, is raising prices slightly and has secured him the approximate 200 turkeys he needs to satisfy customers.
“Maine has the luxury of having turkey farms, fresh turkeys where you can pick up the bird the night before Thanksgiving,” Tarpinian said.
But shoppers looking for local, pasture-raised birds this year would be wise to order them early. “Sometimes we call three or four days before slaughter and say, ‘We will take 30 more,’” Tarpinian said. With Maine-ly Poutlry’s limited supply, “I suspect this year I can’t do it.”
Belfast Co-op, which sells a mix of local and commercial birds, doesn’t anticipate problems. Marketing manager Doug Johnson was assured by the national co-operative group he buys from that “we will have a solid supply through the holidays.” They also expect reasonable prices, despite the shortage.
“The rule in groceries is you don’t really make money on turkeys,” Johnson said. “We are committed to getting competitive prices. So far it will be better than usual.”
Good for grocers, who lure customers in with inexpensive turkeys to sell them fixings like pies and stuffing, not great for small turkey farmers.
Livestock grower Keena Tracy of Little Ridge Farm in Lisbon Falls says pasturing turkeys becomes more expensive each year. The cost of grain, poults and butcher services have all gone up.
“It costs me $40 to raise one bird,” said Tracy, who whittled her flock from 50 to 30 this year. “The turkey is the apex of the discussion of what real food costs. People have no idea.”
Despite frequent balks, at $5 a pound she is close to selling out of her birds a month and a half before the holiday. “It happened exactly the same with the mad cow disease. We gained more grass-fed beef customers,” she said. “But it’s easier to sell pork and beef next to turkeys,” because of the price.
Uncertainty seems to be the common thread for Maine turkey growers this year.
For Barnstein, the situation is dire. This year’s curveball means less income for his family. Though he’s had years of success with turkeys, he questions the future.
“Farming is a crapshoot, but this case is very difficult,” he said. “I’ll clearly take a hit.”
Will he gear up for another year? “It’s hard to say. I’ll have to see how things are when I get through this season,” Barnstein said.
He has no plans, besides “praying a lot,” to fill the loss.
To experts like Lichtenwalner, there is a bright side. Farmers are becoming more aware. “The upshot is biosecurity is coming into focus. That’s keeping animals safe in their environment,” she said.
Lichtenwalner suggests livestock owners figure out ways to keep wild birds away from their birds through vigilance and isolation.
“There are a lot of different factors,” Lichtenwalner said. “Why are backyard farmers relatively unscathed? We are not sure why.”