Montreal

This pandemic Thanksgiving, spare a thought for your local turkey farmer

To most of us, it's just a nice early-autumn break, but for Quebec's turkey farmers, Thanksgiving represents 40 per cent of sales in a typical year. Much rides on this weekend.

No, there isn't a turkey shortage, but some parts of Quebec have seen a minor run on smaller birds

Thanksgiving represents about 40 per cent of annual sales for turkey farmers in Quebec. (Maxime Denis/Radio-Canada)

As befits someone who earns his living raising turkeys, Lucas McCartney had a contingency plan for Thanksgiving in the time of COVID-19.

He and his wife decided to celebrate in August.

"We used the opportunity ... in the summer to have a bit of a Thanksgiving gathering with friends thinking things might be different this fall," McCartney told CBC's Breakaway. "So we're glad we did that."

Different is certainly an apt descriptor for this year's October long weekend feast, with the premier and public health officials urging people to stay home and avoid gathering.

McCartney will probably still cook a bird this weekend, as will his parents, who live on the farm across the road in Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier, near Quebec City.

Alas, there will be no family feast, he says, "but there will be leftovers." Will that be the case everywhere?

According to Les Éleveurs de volailles du Québec, the industry group representing the bulk of the province's turkey producers, the number of birds raised in Quebec was cut by about eight per cent this past March because of pandemic-related concerns about demand.

The association reports the production cut has resulted in a $5-million revenue shortfall.

There are no widespread shortages per se, but that doesn't mean the right holiday turkey is easy to find everywhere.

In Rawdon, signs have gone up at Métro Plus Boucher, a local supermarket, indicating customers may only purchase a maximum of two birds. Staff report watching customers walk out with four and five turkeys earlier this week.

There are similar situations popping up elsewhere in the province.

Part of the unique aspect of this year's Thanksgiving weekend is demand for larger turkeys is slumping; even the most enthusiastic consumer won't be able to pack away 10 kilograms by themselves, or with two or three other people around the table.

"As growers, and along with the rest of the folks in the industry, we're all trying to maybe adapt, and supply some smaller birds to fit smaller families," McCartney said.

That has included shifting production into derivative products and individual cuts. The first big turkey day of 2020, Easter Sunday, was a good one from the farmers' standpoint.

Nationwide, Canadians consumed six million pounds of turkey in March and April, roughly similar levels to previous years despite COVID-19 restrictions.

Much rides on whether the same will be true this weekend.

In a statement to CBC, the Éleveurs de volaille said Thanksgiving represents about 40 per cent of annual sales; last year, that translated into about 2.5 million turkeys.

The other high point in the turkey calendar is Dec. 25. 

"So far, Thanksgiving seems good," McCartney said. "We're hoping Christmas will be too."

with files from Breakaway, Nancy Wood and Debra Arbec

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