By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Nonprofits across the state are struggling to put together their traditional Thanksgiving boxes and community feasts amid inflation and a shortage of turkeys caused by avian influenza.
Bird flu has swept across the nation from Maine to Wyoming, forcing the destruction of more than 23 million turkeys, chickens and game birds, which has pushed prices up dramatically, according to figures from American Farm Bureau Federation.
In September, retail prices for fresh boneless, skinless turkey breast hit a new record at $6.70 per pound — 112% higher than the same time last year, when prices were just $3.16 a pound.
The previous record was $5.88 a pound seen in November 2015, which also came after a widespread outbreak of avian influenza.
A Fowl Dilemma
While Walmart recently announced that it’s rolling back prices to 2019 levels for selected holiday staples — including turkey — through Dec. 26, supply remains a significant barrier for many nonprofits. They seek out large numbers of turkeys all at once.
In addition, the gap between retail and wholesale prices has narrowed significantly, removing a primary benefit of cash donations. That has many nonprofit leaders saying they prefer a bird in hand to cash donations this year.
Among these is Josh Watanabe, executive director of Laramie Interfaith.
“We’ve got the storage issue kind of squared, and we think we can manage it,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “We’re working with a bunch of community partners here in Laramie that have freezers and have the ability to help store all those things. We kind of secured that in the past day or two.
“So at this point, we really just would like to have the turkeys in hand so that we know we’ve got them to give out to our families.”
Offering a meat other than turkey is problematic, Watanabe said. Not only are hams also expensive, but the real issue in switching things around last minute are logistics.
“We have to let our retail partners know well in advance what we’re going to be sending people over there to get, so, you know, at this point, where (switching meat for) one or two wouldn’t be that big of a deal, I think shifting half of our load over to something else, I’m not sure they’d appreciate that,” he said.
Turkey is not the only trouble spot for nonprofits. Inflation has made just about everything in a traditional holiday feast more expensive than usual, whether it’s sweet potatoes and cranberries or gas to travel pick up and deliver donations.
Meanwhile, the need facing nonprofits is growing.
Tim Simeroth, captain of the Casper Salvation Army, told Cowboy State Daily he thinks his organization will likely need 600 birds this year, a significant increase from the 400 needed last year.
“In February, we were doing 30 families a day,” he said. “But now we’re anywhere from 90 to 100 a day.”
He’s looking at putting hams or “whatever we can get” into some holiday boxes if he cannot source enough turkeys.
“We’re just going to have to source other things besides turkeys this year,” he said.
‘I’ll Find Them’
Glen Chavez, meanwhile, told Cowboy State Daily he has reached out to every grocery store in the Cheyenne area for turkeys, with no luck so far.
“Right now, they’re telling me they can’t help me this year because there’s a shortage of turkeys,” he said. “In fact, they told me Walmart distribution isn’t even going to give their employees turkeys this year.”
Chavez has started calling national distribution centers in his search for the 300 turkeys he needs for an annual effort that feeds around 3,000 military personnel and family members in Cheyenne.
“I’ll find them,” Chavez said, determined. “I find them every year. I hear this actually every year, but not like this year. We’re in a different economy, a different state of mind than we have been in years past.”
Shoppers On The Lookout
Individual shoppers also are facing more obstacles than usual when it comes to their own family feasts.
Susan Lowrie at Walmart in Cheyenne on Tuesday afternoon was looking over the turkeys. She was pleasantly surprised to discover the store’s price rollback.
“That’s a really good price,” she said.
She usually shops at Sam’s Club, she told Cowboy State Daily, but hadn’t been able to buy a turkey there yet. There simply weren’t any.
She has family coming in for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year and has been shopping sales to stockpile what she will need ahead of time, concerned about supply chain issues.
“My son is coming in for Christmas in December and he likes turkey,” she said. “So I’m going to get two turkeys.”
The biggest reason for this year’s turkey shortage is not just supply chain issues and inflation that has ramped up input costs, though neither helps.
The main reason for the shortage is the bird flu outbreak that’s swept across 24 states.
Tens of millions of birds have died since the first case was confirmed in February in Indiana. Since early April, health officials have reported the culling of 23 million turkeys, chickens and game birds.
Health experts have said avian influenza generally doesn’t enter the nation’s food supply, since contaminated flocks are isolated and destroyed the moment avian influenza is identified and confirmed. But the virus is also not transmissible from eating properly cooked poultry and eggs.
Wild birds, including wild turkeys, also are dying from bird flu.
Montana, for example, confirmed seven dead turkeys near Billings about a month ago. Not long after, Wyoming also found dead turkeys near Sheridan, which forced the depopulation of broodstock at a captive pheasant farm managed by Wyoming Game and Fish.
At least 38 wild birds have tested positive for H5N1 in Wyoming, according to state officials, but testing is not done on all dead wild birds because of the expense, so the numbers likely under-represent what is actually out there.
There also have been reports of the virus in high densities in the Big Horn Basin, the east side of Bighorn Mountains, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, in South Pass, east of Casper and near Cheyenne.
To report clusters of dead birds of three or more, call the Game and Fish wildlife health laboratory at 307-745-5865.