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  • Norfolk Farms

Will it be the turkey trot or the chicken dance, to the dinner table

When choosing low fat, high protein meats, poultry is always a good choice.

We know for certain that one gobbles, the other bawks and that consumers have some very interesting and traditional habits when it comes to their birds. When it comes to Christmas dinner, you can bet it’s the turkey that will be served but it’s assured Sunday dinner will see a roasted chicken in the centre of the table.

Fortunately, consumers are blessed to have Ontario chicken and turkey farmers working hard each and every day to get the birds from farm to table, and in ways not seen in the past.

Ontario has about 165 turkey farmers who turn out around 2.5 million toms (large male turkeys usually over nine kilograms) and three million hens (female turkeys under nine kilograms) annually. The Hamilton, Brant, Haldimand-Norfolk District has about 23 producers in what is known as District 2.

Brian Ricker, is a 25-year turkey farmer from Dunnville and is chair of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario. Ricker has been on the board since 2004 and said the number of growers has dropped slightly over his tenure. He attributes the grower decrease to retirements mainly.

“There have been some new and younger farmers who have bought turkey quota for the first time over the years but not quite enough to replace the guys who have left,” Ricker explained.

A turkey farmer checks his flock during routine care. Ontario’s turkey farmers are committed to humane care and treatment of their birds to ensure safe and wholesome food for the consumer. — Photo courtesy Turkey Farmers of Ontario

Ricker himself raises around 50,000 turkeys annually. Ontario producers collectively market between 85 and 90 million kilograms of turkey each year, representing about 45 per cent of all turkeys produced in Canada. For the most part, Ontario turkeys stay in the province to be sold. Toms get made into deli meats and ground turkey. The hens are either bagged as whole birds or made into what is knows as ‘cut-ups’ of wings and breasts.

A few years ago, the Turkey Farmers noticed that households were beginning to change and meat for a large dinner was not what was desired for everyday cooking. Hence a business decision was made to begin marketing smaller portions.

“About four years ago we discovered whole bird sales were declining,” Ricker said. “Families had gotten smaller and millennial are not prone to cooking whole birds. The boomers who historically cooked the whole bird are now living alone or going to the their kids home to eat.”

For many years the Turkey Farmers relied on retailers to move whole turkeys out the door and neglected to actively market their products. Once they decided to put more focus and emphasis on ground turkey, business began to take off.

“The most significant thing that has changed in the past 10 years is the consumption of ground turkey,” Ricker explained. “It’s lower in salt and high in protein but 10 years ago you couldn’t find it – now it’s widely available.”

Ground turkey is made from the dark meat of the bird like the thighs, which in the past were exported to other countries. Ground turkey has been very lucrative over the past few years because sales have helped sustain the industry over the entire calendar year, rather than just at festive seasons.

It’s no surprise the majority of whole birds are sold at Christmas, followed by Thanksgiving and then Easter. In fact, 80 per cent of sales occur at festive occasions. Thanksgiving takes a backseat to Christmas largely because Quebec does not celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional way other provinces do.

Sadly, the Turkey Farmers of Ontario have not escaped the wrath of the pandemic over the past two years.

“It was interesting when Coved hit because over the years whole bird sales had been shrinking but our deli market was strong. “ Ricker said. “When we went into Covid-19 in 2020 we had the highest cold storage stocks than we had in history. We had cut whole bird production but all of a sudden stores shut down delis because people weren’t packing lunches for work or school. We had to cut production immediately.”

Subway for example saw an 80 per cent decline in turkey sub sales while Ontario was in lockdown.

Shopping habits in 2020 were changed as well. Consumers reverted back to patterns seen 20 years ago when families shopped once a week instead of once a day like we had pre pandemic. As a result, whole bird sales became popular again as people were home to cook, or turned their turkey into several meals to prolong the time between shopping trips.

Ricker credits the industry for responding quickly to these patterns, by switching the market from toms to hens, especially when other forms of protein were in short supply.

“Covid-19 really hit the market hard – a 30-year low,” Ricker admitted. “It was bad for growers, myself included. Processors had to respond to the pandemic to buy things like PPE and workplace partitions. They had to spend money at a time when production was low.”

To respond to the fiscal challenges, the Turkey Farmers of Ontario cut production by 15 per cent as well as live price by about 10 per cent and implemented a Covid levy in the event growers became devastated. Luckily, the levy was not needed and it was pulled back a few months ago.

It was about a year ago that the industry began to see a rebound and has been able to increase production twice since then. The biggest hurdle the turkey industry is experiencing is labor shortages.

Like everyone, Ricker will be happy to get back to business as usual. “It’s been a crazy ride….meetings are by Zoom and it just isn’t the same as meeting and dealing in person. It’s tougher to make decisions for sure.”

Gobble up these tid-bits

  • Nova Scotia eats more turkey per capita than any other province

  • Turkeys are bigger than chickens

  • Chicken is still the more popular bird. Newcomers to Canada don’t have a word in their vocabulary for turkey.

  • It costs a farmer roughly $6 to raise a small turkey from farm to table. Larger turkeys cost a farmer about $14 – hence the reason to keep your flock healthy!

While turkey is the chosen meat for Christmas and Thanksgiving, chicken is most definitely the bird of choice on a daily basis for Canadians. Ontario boasts over 1,300 family-run chicken farms, sending to market about 200 million chickens annually. Norfolk County is home to about 90 family-run chicken farms.

Those 200 million chickens are shipped to Ontario processors, who work with their customers to grocery retail and food service so that consumers can purchase and eventually eat. The Ontario chicken industry supports over 20,000 jobs across the province and contributes over $3.8 million to the Ontario economy.

Like many business and agricultural industries, the chicken industry has had to evolve in many ways over time. The use of technology ranks high on the list but on-farm food safety, animal-care standards and consumer preferences have all played a role in how the chicken industry has grown and changed.

Throughout the global pandemic the Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO) have been committed to ensuring consumers continue to have available to them ample product close to home.

“The chicken industry has had to be agile and adapt to many challenges throughout the pandemic,” said Andrea Veldhuizen, CFO Board Director for District 4 (which includes Norfolk County). We have been continually focused on serving Ontarian consumers, amidst a number of disruptions to our sector.”

The industry has pulled together to demonstrate its agility in order to safeguard against COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, CFO launched a campaign entitled, Chicken As Usual. Through the campaign, CFO has already donated over $25,000 to Feed Ontario to assist in their Emergency Response program. The program provides pre-packaged emergency food boxes to food bank across the province. To learn more visit: The page continues to evolve as the campaign grows.

“While many common, routines have changed – and things are definitely not business as usual – Ontario’s chicken farmers are on the job and committed to raising safe, healthy, high quality, locally-grown chicken for families and for food banks,” Veldhuizen said. “We look forward to getting back to a steadier state, and being able to meet with the farmers in our local communities again.” 

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