No wonder it isn’t just the turkeys that are stuffed on Thanksgiving. Last year, on Thanksgiving Day, Americans ate 45 million turkeys, according to the National Turkey Federation, an advocacy group for the turkey industry. Since 1970, average annual per capita turkey consumption has jumped from 8.1 pounds per person to 17.4 pounds per person. We’re eating more Toms. While few local grocers can trace their birds past a distribution facility to an actual farm, they know that come Thanksgiving, a lot of birds, fresh and frozen, will have passed through their freezers and refrigerators.
Karl Moorehead, meat department manager at Albertsons Supermarket on East Broadway, doesn’t care to say how many turkeys his store has ordered—protection against competitors and “higher ups”—but he does say that Albertsons has been selling more and more fresh turkeys. Varieties include Hutterite, Honeysuckle and Butterball. Safeway on West Broadway also carries the Butterball—“They have butter injected right into them,” explains a Safeway employee. Safeway ordered roughly 2,400 turkeys, including fresh, frozen and free-range. Costco Wholesale expects to take delivery of 383 turkeys between 18 and 25 pounds each, and a Costco manager says they’re “very good.” Then again, he says, “I don’t know if there is a bad turkey.”
Tidyman’s meat department manager Tim Lowney estimates his store ordered a mix of about 2,400 frozen, fresh and Hutterite turkeys. Pattee Creek Market (formerly known as Bi-Lo) had already taken about 400 orders for Hutterite turkeys a week before Thanksgiving, and expects another 100 to 200 orders. Rosauer’s meat department manager Tim Reilly guessed his store had ordered “a ton,” or close to a thousand, frozen or fresh free-range birds, and a lead associate in Wal-Mart’s meat department said the store had ordered more birds this year than last year, when they ordered about 4,800 frozen and fresh turkeys.
One big player in both the nation’s and Missoula’s turkey business is Norbest, Inc., headquartered in Midvale, Utah. From a slaughtering facility outside of Salt Lake City, Norbest turkeys are distributed to suppliers such as Associated Food Stores, Inc., whose smallest division, in Helena, supplies roughly 200 stores in Montana. Meat department manager Steve Claassen in the Helena division sheds light on the turkeys’ journey from the Moroni Feed Company plant 125 miles south of Salt Lake to stores such as the Orange Street Food Farm (which ordered 80 frozen Norbest cases—two to four birds per case—this year) and the Toole Avenue Grocery (which ordered six cases, he says).
Claassen says Norbest raises its turkeys in a valley south of Salt Lake where the elevation is 7,000 feet. That drier climate, with relatively cooler summers, he’s been told by Norbest employees, seems to help the birds put on weight faster than they would in hotter, more humid climates.
Warehouses such as Claassen’s sometimes purchase frozen Thanksgiving turkeys from Norbest as early as March, he says, but they’re “trying to get away from storing turkeys so long, so this year we brought them in at the end of August, first of September.” The 479 cases of fresh birds they ordered, he says, were slaughtered between Nov. 6 and Nov. 9, shipped out of Utah Nov. 11 and arrived in Helena Nov. 13. The internal temperature of a fresh-frozen turkey is 28 degrees, says Claassen, and “when you bring in a turkey like that, you would have a very hard time telling the difference between a frozen turkey and a fresh turkey.” This year, the Helena division had eight semi-truck loads of frozen turkeys delivered to its warehouses, where the birds are kept at 15 to 20 degrees below zero. Each truckload carries about 45,000 pounds of turkey.
Claassen says that his division’s total turkey order this year—about 425,000 pounds, or 8,500 cases—represents about 1,000 more cases than last year’s order. “It’s been a hard year for people,” he says, and Helena’s Associated Food Stores, Inc. division is seeing more orders from organizations such as food banks and Lions Clubs that are buying turkeys to donate for Thanksgiving meals. Locally, probably the most infamous pre-Thanksgiving extravaganza—with complimentary hot cider, pumpkin bread and live music—takes place at The Good Food Store (GFS). The Monday before Thanksgiving, says grocery, meat and seafood manager Pam Clevenger, GFS will receive at least 1,800 Nicholas White turkeys trucked in from the New Rockport Hutterite Colony near Choteau, 305 miles from Missoula. “We only buy from that colony,” says Clevenger, of the Hutterite turkeys. GFS staff have visited the colony, and “We’re confident with their living conditions and what they feed them and their growing techniques,” she says.
The colony grows most of its own turkey feed, including barley and wheat. “It’s an all-natural, vegetarian diet,” she says. Because the colony does not farm organically, the turkeys are not certified organic. They are free-range, though they have protection from the elements. “They’re not in a pasture, like cows,” says Clevenger. While the turkeys are free to “run around in this big huge yard,” the yard is adjacent to a barn with feed and water troughs. The colony—mostly its women, says Clevenger—slaughters and shrink-wraps the turkeys the weekend before Thanksgiving. On Monday at the Good Food Store loading ramp, the turkeys are sorted by weight into a refrigerated truck rented specially for Turkey Tuesday. For the past five years, GFS has also ordered 50 certified organic turkeys from Shelton’s, a California-based company that sells free-range poultry products. Shelton’s turkeys come frozen, not fresh, and GFS sells fewer of them. After well over a decade of festive Turkey Tuesdays with Hutterite turkeys as the mainstay bird, GFS customers, at least, prefer fresh and local, says Clevenger. Plus, she says, people resist experimenting with their Thanksgiving fare. “Your Thanksgiving dinner is so important that you don’t want to take any chances.”