ADDISON COUNTY — Despite the ever more chaotic rush for all things new and discounted during the holiday season, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in years: the Thanksgiving turkey dinner.
Tradition held true this year, according to Addison County’s largest turkey producers, Misty Knoll Farm in New Haven and Stonewood Farm in Orwell. They say a sluggish economy hasn’t stifled the demand for Vermont-produced turkeys.
In fact, at Stonewood Farm in Orwell, demand for Thanksgiving turkeys has increased by about 10 percent year after year. The farm this year sold 15,000 turkeys at Thanksgiving to stores all over New England and in New York state south to New York City.
It’s a big time of the year for Misty Knoll Farm, too. Rob Litch, the farm’s co-owner, said Thanksgiving turkeys make up approximately 80 percent of the farm’s turkey sales each year. Misty Knoll distributes turkeys year-round, selling both on the farm and to stores throughout New England and New York, including to the Whole Foods grocery chain.
“Demand (for our turkey) seems resilient,” said Litch at Misty Knoll, which also raises chickens.
Stone credits the persistent demand for turkey, in part, to the central focus of food on Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving hasn’t been cluttered up with things that other holidays have been, like consumer activities,” he said.
Both Stone and Litch have some perspective on that: Stone and his wife, Frances, have been raising turkeys since 1987, and the business is now run by their son and daughter-in-law. Litch and his business partner, John Palmer, have been in the poultry business since 1984.
The two businesses have grown substantially since then, in part due to what Stone said is a rising level of consumer awareness of the commercial poultry industry. People are opting for Stonewood Farm’s turkeys in part because they are antibiotic-free, and humanely raised, he said.
“I think many of our customers are looking for that,” said Stone.
Now, just before Christmas, the two producers are again taking turkey orders from stores. But, said Litch, filling the demand for Christmas turkey is almost relaxing compared to the rush just before Thanksgiving.
“It’s like a holiday while working,” he said.
Misty Knoll and Stonewood do their slaughter and processing in-house. They are the only two producers in the state that are federally inspected, allowing them to sell products across state lines.
The two state-inspected slaughter facilities are Adams Turkey Farm in Westford, which only slaughters and processes its own turkey, and Spring Hill Poultry, a mobile slaughter unit that travels to farms across the state to slaughter poultry.
Without state inspection, said Randy Quenneville, chief of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s meat inspection program, small producers can sell poultry on their farms or at farmers’ markets, provided that they are labeled as uninspected. With inspection, producers can sell to retail operations within the state.
Quenneville said that beginning in October, state facilities slaughtered 26,100 turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday. Add to that what he estimated to be 26,000 from Misty Knoll, 15,000 from Stonewood Farm, and 400 or 500 uninspected turkey from small producers, and Vermont produced more than 65,000 turkeys this holiday season.
But, said Quenneville, the field is very limited for those looking to get into selling turkeys retail.
“We’re trying to get some more brick-and-mortar (slaughter) facilities,” said Quenneville. “That would really open up the marketplace.”
Another threat to the state’s poultry industry looms on the horizon — as of Nov. 30, the contract is up on the state’s use of the mobile poultry unit, as its operator is retiring and looking for someone to take over the business. Quenneville said at this point, the future of that resource is up in the air.
Due to biosecurity issues raised by the avian flu outbreak in Europe in 2005, producers that do run inspected slaughter facilities are reluctant to take poultry raised by other producers, for fear that any disease could spread to their birds.
Quenneville said the ideal solution is an independent slaughter facility that doesn’t also raise birds. But despite the resources the agency can make available for those looking to start up slaughterhouses — including 40 hours of meat inspection per week at no cost — he said there hasn’t been anyone willing to take the plunge and open a poultry slaughterhouse.
But he said the moment there is more slaughter capacity in the state, there’s no doubt there will be producers eager to raise more poultry, just as he’s seen them react to declining slaughter availability by drawing back on production.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andrea@addisonindependent