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The Back Page: November 2013

Turkey 101


October 2, 2013
By Roy Maxwell

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If everyone in Canada who buys a turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas bought just one more during the year, Canada’s turkey farmers could increase production by 25 to 30 per cent. That is one of the fascinating things I learned recently about the Canadian turkey industry.

After a lifetime in agriculture, including 16 years in the chicken business, I realized I don’t know much about turkey, other than how to carve and eat it. I decided to educate myself and share some of my findings with Canadian Poultry readers. What could be a better time to write about turkey than in November, which is sandwiched between turkey’s two biggest months of the year?

After speaking with Nova Scotia turkey farmer Mark Davies, who is serving his seventh year as the chair of Turkey Farmers of Canada (TFC), and Phil Boyd, who is the longtime executive director of TFC, I now know a lot more about the turkey industry in Canada.

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According to 2012 statistics, 35 per cent of whole turkeys sold in Canada were purchased at Thanksgiving, while Christmas sales accounted for 44 per cent. Expressed another way, 37 per cent of all Canadian households purchased turkey or turkey-related products at Thanksgiving and 40 per cent did the same at Christmas. That is a lot of turkey-consuming households, but what about the rest of the year? How can something so popular fall off the chart during the other 10 months? I put that question to Mark Davies. He said this has been a challenge for decades and the question is this: How do we get people off that mindset? But he quickly reported that progress is being made.

Sales of turkey parts and further processed products are on the rise. They have increased from about nine million kilograms in 1993 to 18.5 million in 2012. No one has ever accused me of being a brilliant economist, but that strikes me as being a healthy improvement. It is the further processed portion that is driving growth, according to Davies, but there are obstacles. Using ground turkey as an example, he asked, “You can promote it, but is it on the shelf?”

Davies believes success requires the whole chain to buy into it, but he concedes that buy-in is a slow process. He wants the industry itself to create increased consumer demand, noting that people who see recipes requiring ground turkey can’t always find it. He wants consumers to tell retailers they want the product and then ask, “Where is it?” Meanwhile, per capita consumption of whole turkey hasn’t changed much and that remains a challenge. Fortunately, Canada’s population growth has resulted in higher sales of whole birds.

Every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, supply management critics write and talk about cross-border shopping, claiming that supply management significantly inflates poultry, egg and dairy prices for Canadians. Davies calls these price comparison stories “cherry picking” because critics focus on turkey and other supply management products, ignoring the fact that almost everything else, from other foods to automobiles – including cars that were built in Canada – costs less in the States. In recent years, Canadian whole frozen turkeys sold at an average price of $2.97 per kilogram. The price of American turkey over the same time period was $3.26. Claims about much cheaper turkey in the U.S. are “just not true,” according to Davies, who said there is a 10 per cent difference at the most.

So what does the future hold for Canada’s turkey farmers? The turkey industry is celebrating 40 years of supply management this year, and Davies believes supply management will be here in the future. “We may need to adapt to a new world,” he said, “but we will be here, not given away.” He points out that every country has its own sensitive products. “That’s what governments hang their hats on, and rightfully so, because they recognize protecting those sectors is in the best interest of their own country.” He calls supply management a successful constant in Canada, and says the government recognizes that, regardless of what columnists may write in the paper.

TFC executive director Phil Boyd summed up the future very succinctly – he explained that Canada offers a market access level of five per cent of domestic consumption and that keeping it at five per cent is critical. He said, “We have a great industry and a very good relationship with upstream and downstream industry partners and government. TFC is well poised to work with industry and government to ensure that our sector is sustainable and around for the long term.”

This Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I am carving the Maxwell turkey, I will pause to think about a relatively small group of very impressive Canadian farmers.