MERCER — The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all aspects of life, and the business of Thanksgiving turkeys is no exception.

For the farmers, business is booming. Grocers, however, cannot always keep up with demand. Nonetheless, Thanksgiving this year is a massively larger endeavor for Scott Greaney, his wife, Tracy, and sons Adam and Benjamin who help out at Greaney’s Turkey Farm in Mercer.

“People are having big Thanksgivings,” Scott said from behind his desk, with the backdrop of a poster sign that reads “Turkey Time.” “This whole thing about small turkeys — maybe in the cities — but they’re honestly having big Thanksgivings here.”

How big?

Well, a 48-pound turkey recently sold.

The Greaneys raised 1,500 turkeys this year, about 500 more than a normal year. As of Wednesday, they had slaughtered and dressed about 1,200 more turkeys brought to them by individuals or other farms. Small, backyard farms can bring turkeys in Sunday-Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, and the Greaneys expect to process around 1,500 more turkeys. For Thanksgiving 2020 the Greaneys may process as many as 5,000 turkeys, about double from a normal year.

“Nothing has not been different,” Scott said. “We’ve had calls from everywhere.”

“If we do 2,000 between us and backyard farms, we’re lucky,” Tracy Greaney said. This year is a new best.

The Greaneys supply turkeys to stores across the state, from Bangor to Kittery. Scott Greaney prefers to supply locally owned grocers. He’s been approached by grocery store chains such as Shaw’s and Hannaford, but it just isn’t him. Greaney likes knowing and building relationships with his customers over time.

Scott Greaney of Greaney Turkey Farm, talks Wednesday about the increase in the farm’s turkey processing business this year, while standing near processed turkeys that were stored at the farm before being shipped out. The farm is handling twice the amount of turkey processing business this year, according to Greaney. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“My name’s on these birds, and we have a reputation,” he said. “You take care of these people, and they depend on us.”

When Greaney underwent chemotherapy in 2014 for  genetic mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is now in remission, customers offered to help at the farm. That, he said, is the essence of local farming.

GREANEY’S IDEAL TURKEY

At the farm since 1983, Scott has found his ideal turkey. The farm uses a medium strain maple veil. Developed in the 1960s, the breed of turkey comes directly from Bob’s Turkey Farm in Lancaster, Massachusetts. This year’s turkeys were hatched in May or June, and Greaney likes them because of their advanced digestive system.

“When they eat the grain, it’s like feeding a baby a steak,” Greaney said.

Greaney and his team were packing wholesale orders Wednesday. There are still orders for traditional sized turkeys. Some customers said they’ll freeze part of it, but others are a bit more specific. Greaney has gotten requests for turkeys to be halved in specific ways for a Thanksgiving meal and a meal down the road. Some orders include requests for bone-out turkeys in small boneless roasts.

The increased demand is a pandemic thing, too. In May, Greaney and a handful of other local farmers told the Morning Sentinel that demand for poultry had increased as customers worried about the food supply chain. The regular customer base expanded to a more statewide clientele as well as other local farmers.

“Last spring was a wakeup call,” Greaney said. “There’s a resurgence of anxiety. People are worried about going into winter rationed.”

The Greaneys offer a chicken slaughter for customers on Saturdays and select weekdays. They are known for their humane killings that involve electric shock. This year, people have come from across New England to have their broiler chickens dressed. In past years, the season ended before Thanksgiving. The Greaneys have chicken days scheduled through mid-December.

Through it all, the week of Thanksgiving is expected to be the most substantial yet. The Greaneys are delivering. Last minute orders are expected.

Greaney expects Thanksgiving week to be a zoo.

Josh Doame grabs a turkey from the flock Saturday as he slaughters birds for the holiday in Mercer. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

FROM OTHER LOCAL FARMS

For local farms, business is up just about everywhere.

Pauline Henderson, who co-owns Pine Tree Poultry in New Sharon with her husband, Tim, said they are sold out of turkeys. This year they were sold much earlier. They approached Thanksgiving 2020 as a “non-expectational year.” They didn’t know what was coming.

“There’s a lot more smaller Thanksgiving dinners this year,” Pauline Henderson said. “We’ve seen a lot of consistency with size on the turkeys, but a lot of people calling for smaller turkeys. There are last minute change of plans or deciding that they’re going to have a Thanksgiving.”

Scott Greaney of Greaney Turkey Farm talks about the increase in the farm’s turkey processing business this year Wednesday in the farm office. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

In Skowhegan, Tessiers Farm raised 25 turkeys this year and sold out in September, which is not unusual. Owner Carrie Tessier said they’re still receiving calls — three times as many — as they usually would.

“Farmers weren’t sure if there would be people wanting to purchase local, but it’s definitely been good for all the farmers, because people want to support local and know where their food is coming from,” Tessier said. “We weren’t sure what things were going to pan out to look like until June and July, because with turkeys, you have to get them in the spring. We have what we have, and for next year, we’d definitely do more.”

For the Greaneys, who have one of the larger turkey operations in the state, Thanksgiving time is always plenty busy. They look for turkeys on a bell curve, with 18 pounds being the sweet spot. Scott works with a nutritionist to set protein levels in the grain for optimal turkey size. Toward the end of the season, protein levels go down and turkeys enter a “maintenance” mode.

Recently, Scott Greaney got a call from a 92-year-old customer in Bath asking for a small turkey. He pulled a 9-pounder out from a refrigerated room.

“I feel the obligation to my people,” he said. “That’s the way we do business.”

ON THE SHELVES

At the grocery store level, grocers are seeing some differences in Thanksgiving 2020. Some stores are meeting increased demand earlier than usual, but others cannot get the number of turkeys they’d need in a normal year.

Susie Witt, grocery buyer for Uncle Dean’s Natural Market in Waterville, said there are “some minor supply issues” this fall, such as a canned pumpkin shortage.

“We have the same offerings for three types of turkeys, but the only thing I’ve noticed is that because people are having smaller dinners, the small turkeys are selling out first,” Witt said.

Rob Pleau, owner of Pleau’s Market in Winslow, echoed that his store is selling out early. He said customers are emphasizing quality over price for all meats. Pleau gets his from Associated Grocers of New England. They’ve sold 100 turkeys from 10-25 pounds and expect to keep selling more. At Pleau’s, there’s no rhyme or reason as to what size turkeys are being ordered.

“It’s all over the board,” Pleau said. “As far as what people are doing for the holidays, people haven’t really said.”

At Tobey’s Groceries in China, meat manager Jonathan Farnham preorders turkeys based on the previous year’s sales. They have frozen and fresh turkeys. They’ve had more special orders this year, but more so on holiday hams than turkeys. The Thanksgiving bird is not a major profit maker. Smaller grocers can’t mark down turkeys to the same extent larger store chains can.

A male turkey pokes his head above his fellow turkeys Saturday at Greaney’s Turkey Farm in Mercer. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“There are some changes in the community in their buying habits, and I feel like the coronavirus has impacted that,” Farnham said. “It’s a guessing game. What we do is everything possible to make sure to get the customer what they ask for.”

Ginger Desrosiers, manager of Buddies Groceries in Oakland, said the store used to sell a Thanksgiving dinner box, but can’t get the turkeys.

“The size of turkey that we normally do in that box are hard to come by, so we decided not to do them this year,” Desrosiers said. “Hopefully we can do it for Christmas, but we’ll see the availability at that time.”

Buddies Groceries mostly orders 10-16 pound turkeys from Bozzuto’s wholesale and a few smaller vendors.

“It’s been kind of challenging even to get the ones for the freezer,” Desrosiers said.

The Greaneys are delivering all week to stores like these. And no, they’re not tired of turkey.

“We want our turkey, and by the time we get to Thanksgiving, we’ve earned it,” Tracy Greaney said.

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