What will Thanksgiving dinner look like in 2020? We asked a turkey farmer.

Minnesota family farms raise about 45 million turkeys every year, more than any other state in the US. John Zimmerman, owner of P and J Products in Northfield, Minnesota, is a small part of that equation. His farm produces 4 million to 5 million pounds of turkey each year, all of which is packed up and delivered to grocery stores, schools, cruise ships, and military bases around the country. Like every other industry, the turkey business was hamstrung by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Consumer demand is down, and meatpacking plants have been notoriously vulnerable to Covid-19 outbreaks. With a very strange Thanksgiving on the horizon, Zimmerman and his colleagues are gearing up for their biggest trial of the year.

Zimmerman doesn’t know what the holiday season will look like. Nobody running a turkey farm does. Americans want a normal Thanksgiving — after these past eight months, we certainly deserve it — but the logistics remain unclear. How many people will opt out of close family gatherings entirely? How many will significantly curtail the number of guests they have and reduce the menu down to the essentials? How many will take advantage of the sweeping anti-institutional radicalism the pandemic has provoked and decide to have steak or lobster for this and all Thanksgivings going forward? Those are some of the unknowns Zimmerman is up against, and he won’t know the answers until a few days before the feast, when Americans make their trip to the supermarket.

Turkey is a seldom-used protein in the staple American diet, and Zimmerman doesn’t grow cattle, or chicken, or pork. Still, he tells me the turkey business is agile by nature. He and his fellow farmers are always scheming up new ways to get people to eat more turkey; that’s what begat the turkey bacon, turkey sausage, and turkey burgers that line the freezer shelves at your local grocery store.

The coronavirus is a massive, generation-altering event, but Zimmerman has spent his whole life thinking about the inefficiencies in our diets that turkey could exploit. In that sense, this isn’t a new problem. We talked about that, as well as the similarities Zimmerman sees between this pandemic and the bird flu epidemics of the past and the supply chain disruptions he pushed through as the world slowed to a halt in March and April. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How are you guys feeling going into Thanksgiving?

The big thing right now is like, are people going to have Thanksgiving this year? We had to plan for that. Are people going to get together, how big of turkeys are they going to want, what are we going to do? That market is still in flux. What does the future hold? Are people going to change their tradition this year, and will that continue when things return to normal?

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How did the pandemic affect your farm throughout the year?

We lost a lot of business. A lot of turkey goes to the military, or school services, or cruise ships and casinos. A lot of our turkey is going into the freezers right now, and we’re still waiting for that to rebound. It was a significant drop in demand. The silver lining was that there was also a group of people at home cooking that never did before. There were some whole birds sold, and people smoking turkeys on pellet grills. We tried to have people pivot to that. “Instead of smoking a brisket, try out a turkey.” That’s been a bright spot, and it’s opened a marketing avenue for us in the future.

When did the pandemic become a reality for the turkey farming business?

It started quickly in March and April, because at our processing plant we started to have employees test positive for Covid. A lot of those employees live in large family groups, so one employee would be positive, and you’d have to quarantine 15 or 20 people. We saw a definite decrease in the workforce at the plant, and that affected the farm because we’re working at half speed so we can’t get the birds out on time. Our situation was good; we didn’t have to euthanize any birds, but we did have to truck some of them out to Utah for processing. The supply chain broke down really quickly. [Many farms did have to make the difficult decision to cull their livestock.] Things had to be massaged. It was daunting, but we made it through.

So that slowdown had more to do with a workforce issue rather than a drop in demand?

Exactly. Schools shut down. So if both a husband and wife worked in the plant, someone had to stay home and take care of the kids. That probably affected our workforce more than anything else.

What was it like to work through those logistical questions? How did you come to the decision of, “Okay, I think we need to ship off some of our birds out of state.” Was that challenging?

I’m a grower, so some growers just had to keep their birds longer. Some put pens outside the barns in the warmer months to give them more room, just because they were going to grow to a larger weight. Every time we have a flock go out to market, another flock is coming in, so the whole system gets gummed up. We had to push back when we were getting our baby turkeys because our adult turkeys hadn’t left the farm yet. As things got better, it did start working itself out again. Hopefully there are some lessons to be learned there.

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Were you surprised at how easily the supply chain was disrupted? Was that pipeline revealed to be more fragile than you believed it to be before the pandemic?

Yeah, it’s not just the turkey industry or the livestock industry. I ordered parts for the farm, and in the past it was always, “You’ll have those tomorrow.” But then it turned into, “You’ll have those in three days.” Or, “You’ll have those in a week.” Everyone had to adjust to that just-in-time timetable. So it’s, “We’re not going to carry any inventory, it’s just all going to just show up.”

I imagine that in spring, the idea that the pandemic was going to agitate Thanksgiving plans seemed far-fetched. In those days, so many Americans felt that Covid-19 would be over by summer. So when did you, and other turkey farmers, begin to understand the holiday season wouldn’t be business as usual?

It was June and July.

What’s interesting about the turkey industry is that we’ve been through epidemics before. We had bird flu a number of years ago, so we knew how these arcs worked. It gets worse for a while, then it gets better. There are different peaks. We didn’t expect Covid to go on for this long, but when you get politics involved, it’s lasting longer than it probably would’ve. So in summer, we knew that these closures would likely still be in effect and that it was going to change the way people celebrate for the foreseeable future. We’ve thought about everything: giving people recipes for turkey at home, maybe growing a smaller bird for smaller gatherings.

It’s interesting how you guys are thinking that far outside the box. Like, “Maybe we can change the dimensions of turkey meat to better suit a global pandemic.”

The turkey industry always has to be nimble. We’re small compared to beef and pork, and we know that families have gotten smaller, cultures change, and people are doing that Friendsgiving thing more. That’s made us look at the “whole bird” concept differently. We’re promoting different ways to eat turkey; turkey bacon, turkey sausage, turkey burgers. That mindset, to be innovative, has always been there when you’re growing turkeys.

People don’t buy their Thanksgiving turkey until a couple days before they cook it. Does that make projecting the impact Covid-19 will have on the market this year difficult?

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I’m not in the marketing department, but we work with a company that does a preorder system for their turkeys, and they’ve still seen good demand from their customers. Some people want Thanksgiving to be normal, so they’re going to buy that turkey come hell or high water. And if they’ve got leftovers, they’ve got leftovers.

The way you talk about this problem, it’s clear you’re considering that the pandemic might affect the turkey industry for years to come. A lot of people in commerce and public policy tend to think about Covid-19 in month-to-month terms. What makes you look at it from such a wide scope?

It’s because I’m a farmer. I raise corn, soybeans, and turkeys. Our corn takes a full year to come to fruition. We live on a seasonal cycle. Things we do right now will affect us for multiple years. If you’re in agriculture, you have to have that perspective. We’ve dealt with diseases that have affected us for six months or nine months. You can’t have that myopic mindset of, “What’s happening today, and how is it going to affect us tomorrow?” We’re not worrying about our stock prices. We want to make sure that our farms are here for the next generation, that what we’ve built will still be here for my kids.