Wyoming Thanksgiving Tables Could Be Impacted By Turkey Shortage, Inflation

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By Renee Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
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Nonprofits across the state are struggling to put together their traditional Thanksgiving boxes and community dinners amid a shortage of turkeys caused by inflation and avian influenza.

Bird flu has swept across the country from Maine to Wyoming, killing more than 23 million turkeys, chickens and game birds, according to American Farm Bureau Federation statistics.

Record prices

In September, fresh boneless, skinless turkey breast retail prices hit a new record at $6.70 per pound – 112% higher than the same time last year, when prices were just $3.16 per pound.

The previous record was $5.88 a pound seen in November 2015, which also came after a widespread outbreak of avian influenza.

Turkeys are stocked at King Supers in Cheyenne. (Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily)

A chicken dilemma

Even though Walmart recently announced that it will roll back prices to 2019 levels for select holiday staples — including turkey — by Dec. 26, supply remains a significant hurdle for many nonprofits. They want large numbers of turkeys at once.

In addition, the gap between retail and wholesale prices has narrowed significantly, eliminating the primary purpose of cash donations. Many nonprofit leaders say they prefer a bird in the hand over cash donations this year.

Among them was Laramie Interfaith Executive Director Josh Watanabe.

“We’ve classified the storage problem and we think we can handle it,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “We’re working with a group of community partners here in Laramie that have freezers and have the ability to help store all of that stuff. We secured it in the last day or two.

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“So at this point, we really want to keep the turkeys on hand so we know we’ve got them to feed our families.”

Serving meat other than turkey is problematic, Watanabe said. Not only are hams expensive, but the real problem with changing things at the last minute is logistics.

“We have to let our retail partners know in advance what we’re going to send people out there, so, you know, at this point, one or two (meat changes) aren’t big. In a deal, I think half of our load would shift to something else, I’m not sure they would appreciate that,” he said.

Cost crunch

Turkey is not the only problematic place for nonprofits. Whether it’s the sweet potatoes and cranberries or the gas that goes with the donations, inflation makes the traditional holiday feast more expensive than usual.

Meanwhile, nonprofit needs are growing.

Casper Salvation Army Capt. Tim Simeroth told the Cowboy State Daily that he expects his organization will need 600 birds this year, a significant increase from the 400 needed last year.

“In February, we were doing 30 families a day,” he said. “But now we’re at 90 to 100 a day.”

He’s looking to put hams or “whatever we can get” in some holiday boxes if he can’t source enough turkeys.

“We’re going to have to get other things besides turkeys this year,” he said.

‘I’ll find them’

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Glenn Chavez, meanwhile, told Cowboy State Daily that he’s been to every grocery store in the Cheyenne area looking for turkeys, so far with no luck.

“Right now, they’re telling me they can’t help me this year because there’s a shortage of turkeys,” he said. “In fact, they told me that Walmart distribution won’t even be giving out turkeys to their employees this year.”

Chavez began calling national distribution centers for the 300 turkeys he needed for the annual effort to feed nearly 3,000 military personnel and family members in Cheyenne.

“I will find them,” Chavez was determined. “I find them every year. I hear it every year, but not like this year. We’re in a different economy, a different state of mind than in years past.

Shoppers on the lookout

Individual shoppers are also facing more obstacles than usual when it comes to their own family dinners.

Susan Lowry looks at turkeys at Walmart in Cheyenne on Tuesday afternoon. She was surprised to find the store’s prices had dropped.

“It’s a really good price,” she said.

She usually shops at Sam’s Club, she told Cowboy State Daily, but has yet to buy a turkey there. There just aren’t any.

She has family over for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year and is shopping sales to stock up on what she needs ahead of time, worried about supply chain issues.

“My son is coming for Christmas in December and he likes turkey,” she said. “So I’m going to get two turkeys.”

Bird flu

The biggest reason for Turkey’s shortage this year is supply chain issues and inflation that has driven up input costs, neither of which has helped.

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The main reason for the shortage is the outbreak of bird flu, which has spread across 24 states.

Tens of millions of birds have died since the first case was confirmed in Indiana in February. Since the beginning of April, health officials have reported that 23 million turkeys, chickens and game birds have been killed.

Health experts say avian influenza usually does not enter a nation’s food supply because contaminated flocks are isolated and destroyed the moment avian influenza is detected and confirmed. But eating properly cooked poultry and eggs also does not spread the virus.

Wild birds, including wild turkeys, are also dying from bird flu.

Montana, for example, confirmed seven dead turkeys near Billings a month ago. Shortly thereafter, Wyoming also found dead turkeys near Sheridan, which decimated the brood population at a captive pheasant farm operated by Wyoming Game and Fish.

At least 38 wild birds in Wyoming have tested positive for H5N1, according to state officials, but because of the cost, not all of the dead wild birds have been tested, so the numbers represent what’s actually there.

There are reports of high concentrations of the virus in the Big Horn Basin, east of the Bighorn Mountains, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, in South Pass, east of Casper, and near Cheyenne.

To report groups of three or more dead birds, call the Game and Fish Wildlife Health Laboratory at 307-745-5865.

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