It's a different Thanksgiving but turkeys still having starring role

Turkey processors on Vancouver Island have been “flat out busy” preparing the birds for Thanksgiving tables this weekend.

The surge comes even as provincial health officials call for smaller gatherings and shorter traditional dinners amid the pandemic.

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“I’m up to my elbows in turkey right now,” Deb Schram, of Al’s Feathers Be Gone processing plant in Port Alberni, said Tuesday.

Schram said the company is having one of its busiest Thanksgivings in its 20-year history. Four staff are processing about 125 turkeys a day.

Processing for Thanksgiving started the last week in September and will continue to Friday, said Schram.

The birds come from farms around Qualicum Beach, Parksville, Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo. They arrive live and finish oven-ready, ending up in stores and markets around the Island.

Tracey Noble, who runs Paradise Farms Poultry in Black Creek with her husband, Gord, will have slaughtered and processed between 400 and 500 turkeys by the end of the week for area farmers. That’s on top of about 400 of their own chickens, sold to grocers and markets.

She said a farmer brought in 30 turkeys on Tuesday and another delivered 100 on Wednesday. All are spoken for.

“It’s just the two of us, so we’re very busy,” said Noble.

In August, the Salt Spring Abattoir Society said its poultry bookings for processing were already full until the end of October. It was taking new bookings for the next big turkey holiday at Christmas.

Michel Benoit, general manager of the B.C. Turkey Marketing Board, said about 80% of the turkeys produced in the province are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with about 10% sold at Easter.

Before the pandemic, B.C. farmers had seen a steady decline in whole-bird sales over the three main festive seasons of Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.

This year, Easter numbers were up during the pandemic, which was a positive sign, said Benoit. “With Thanksgiving, we’re on pins and needles right now because we don’t know how it will turn out.”

If grocery-store freezers are empty after Thanksgiving, that means more orders for Christmas, Benoit said.

A spokeswoman for Sobeys, parent company for Thrifty Foods, said many customers are buying smaller turkeys this year. “We expect to see more of our customers opting to buy more of convenience options like turkey roasts and stuffed turkeys,” she said.

Saanichton Farm owner Bryce Rashleigh, who raises turkeys on his mixed farm, said people are buying smaller birds this year. The most common request is for a big turkey cut in half, “so they can eat one now and freeze the other part for later,” said Rashleigh. “I’ll tell you, though, during this pandemic, people are supporting local farmers very well. And that’s everything we sell, from flour and lentils to turkeys.”

Dan Ireland of Ireland Farms in Saanichton shipped about 800 turkeys out for slaughter at a Cobble Hill abbatoir Wednesday. He and his wife, Jean, raise more free-range turkeys than anyone else on the Island, producing about 1,500 for Thanksgiving and 1,700 for Christmas. He sells directly to 12 specialty meat stores and and other grocers and said all of this year’s birds have been sold.

Ireland checked in with buyers after COVID-19 hit and they all maintained their orders.

He believes some big producers in other parts of the province and Canada might be having a tougher time because some retailers are still selling frozen stock left over from a downscaled Easter. “We’re a direct farm marketer, not a commercial grower,” said Ireland. “We are 100% supply and demand. We pre-sell before we start.”

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