Life

I’m a Turkey Farmer. The Pandemic Has Been Great for Business.

I thought a COVID Thanksgiving would hurt business. I was wrong.

Turkey hens walking freely in a grassy area against a blue sky
Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rick Hermonot, who owns the small family-run Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, Connecticut. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

We had to commit to our turkey orders back in January and February. We buy day-old babies from hatcheries. We placed our orders, and COVID started. So we were nervous because we didn’t know what was going to happen. Our business is so heavily focused on one month. If that one month turned out to be a bust because of a spike in COVID …

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But it turned out that more people are ordering. Turkey demand is way up this year. We’re probably 25 percent up. We’re a small farm, we raise about 4,000 turkeys, and we usually sell about 2,200 or 2,300 of them for Thanksgiving. This year we might end up short of the turkey we need for year-round use. But the prime revenue from a turkey is selling it fresh, so we like to sell more for Thanksgiving.

I think part of the reason we are getting more orders is people who would have gone out to dinner for Thanksgiving are staying in. And early on in COVID, there were supply chain issues. Everything was in tight supply, and people got nervous. We found that we had a lot of new customers coming to us for meats and turkey all year long. And I think the locally grown focus has been enhanced this year. People like knowing where it came from and how it was raised. I think COVID is making people reach out for that feel-good stuff more.

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And it wasn’t just us. All my friends with farm stands are experiencing the same thing. Everybody’s been busy on farms this year. There were no fairs, and people are looking for something to do, to get out in the countryside and get some fresh air.

The flipside is people are ordering much smaller turkeys. We have a flock from 12 pounds to 45 pounds, and in a normal year, our average order is 20 to 21 pounds. Now it’s down about 3 pounds per turkey. That’s a huge downsize. We’re worried we’re not going to have enough small turkeys. We stopped taking orders a week and a half ago for anything under 15 pounds. Everybody wants small birds. So that’ll be a challenge, matching up for customers. It’s the one thing I get indigestion over.

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We still had our concerns. If it got really bad, it could affect us—how do we get people to pick up turkey in a lockdown? We did curbside for a while. But Thanksgiving is an absolute madhouse for four days, and that makes you nervous, with COVID. Curbside would be really challenging. Our business has been open through the whole thing, and so we’re getting exposed to folks. We wear masks, and they wear masks, and we limit to nine people in a 1,200-square-foot store and have a big long line outside on busy days. And we feel like we mitigated the risk, but you’re not eliminating the risk. So obviously you think about that.

But we never got hit hard by COVID. Our town only had two cases until the fall, when we got six more. With turkeys, we raise them on pasture: They’re spaced out so they don’t have disease issues. Whereas if you raise them close together, everybody gets diseases. A turkey farm is just like a city.

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