How the coronavirus pandemic is impacting a turkey farmer : The Indicator from Planet Money COVID-19-related travel and get-together restrictions are impacting small businesses across the U.S. this holiday season. The Indicator talks to a turkey farmer about how the pandemic has affected business this year.
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Turkey Business

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Turkey Business

Turkey Business

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I'm Cardiff Garcia.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, just a couple of weeks away. The day before Turkey Day is usually one of the biggest travel days of the year in the U.S. as families cross the country to get together, watch football and, yeah, get into huge arguments.

VANEK SMITH: I don't know what you mean.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: This year, though, is going to be pretty different. Travel is expected to be way down. A lot of people are just staying in. And that, of course, is having a big effect on businesses across the U.S., including a lot of small businesses.

GARCIA: Exactly. This recession has really disproportionately hammered small businesses. They've been really suffering. And so here on THE INDICATOR, we're going to be speaking with small business owners and their workers, and we're going to be highlighting some of the obstacles that they've been experiencing, and also some of their innovations in getting over those obstacles.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. So for the next few months, we're going to be talking with small business owners across the country, getting their stories and what things are looking like for them. And this week, we are talking with Travis Mattison. He owns Ridgecrest Turkey Farm in Brockport, N.Y. Turkeys, of course - this is the turkey time of year.

GARCIA: Oh, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Americans, Cardiff, eat 50 million turkeys on Thanksgiving.

GARCIA: And we feel it.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: I feel like I myself eat 50 million turkeys each Thanksgiving.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Today on the show, we speak with Travis about his farm, what business has been like and what he likes to eat on Thanksgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Travis Mattison, owner of Ridgecrest Turkey Farm, thank you so much for talking with me. So the first thing I wanted to ask is just, you know, how many turkeys do you have?

TRAVIS MATTISON: So this year, that's 1,200 turkeys. They're raised from a day-old chick all the way up to 20 weeks of age when we process them for Thanksgiving.

VANEK SMITH: That's a lot of turkeys.

MATTISON: Yup. Sitting back to the farm right now, there's actually - they're actually kind of all outside because it's cooling down out. So, yeah, there's about four acres of pasture. They're all outside running around 'cause it's kind of windy. So they're too fat to fly, but they just kind of like waddle and clap their wings once it's windy out and then just, like, waddle around the (unintelligible). Well, they run, but there's probably 600 of them outside.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, wow. Does it look like...

MATTISON: It looks like a big field covered in white spots.

VANEK SMITH: And, like, what does it feel like to look at this? I mean, this is your family farm. These are your animals. Like, what does it feel like to see them?

MATTISON: Well, so like this year, I just bought this farm from my parents. But this is the second year of me fully running this operation on my own since I just got done with college. And I don't know. It's a lot more stress now. Like, I see them all outside, and I'd rather have them in the barn 'cause it's safer for them in there.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, you're worried about them? Yeah.

MATTISON: Yeah 'cause it's all my - it's like everything I own is invested into this right now.

VANEK SMITH: You're basically watching your savings...

MATTISON: Oh, yeah, I watched it...

VANEK SMITH: ...Running around in the grass right now.

MATTISON: Yeah. I just watched it - like, over the past week, I've watched what I should have made. And a lot of money just disappears in feed bills and things that I'll never see back.

VANEK SMITH: In a normal year, like, what would your business be right now? I mean, because we're getting up on to Thanksgiving and Christmas and the time when everybody orders turkeys.

MATTISON: So right now, we should be almost sold out. Normally, the phone is ringing like 40 times, 50 times a day.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

MATTISON: Where this case, this year is we're probably 30% behind where we should be for sales. We've never had a year that we're going to see like this year.

VANEK SMITH: What are orders like this year?

MATTISON: So people seem to want a 10-pound turkey is what I get a phone call for lately. But I just - I can't produce a 10-pound turkey. A 10-pound turkey - it's the size of a chicken. There's no meat on a 10-pound turkey. So all of my turkey is going to be between 18 and like 40 pounds.

VANEK SMITH: Are people just saying, like, we just don't have anyone coming over this year or I lost my job or stuff like that?

MATTISON: Yeah. People say family isn't coming from out of town. It's - the kids aren't coming back from college. And the family doesn't want to get together. And within Monroe County here in New York, they've now just placed like another restriction on us or we're supposed to have another restriction like you're not supposed to have a gathering, so...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, and that's like coming right at the moment when...

MATTISON: Yeah. This is changing, like, daily. So we can usually turn a good profit. It's just a lot of work, a lot of investment. And we do it all ourselves. And that's how you can turn the good profit. But this year, with sales being down, it's definitely going to affect my cost for next year. I have to look at ways to decrease my costs and to figure out a more safe marketplace for these turkeys.

VANEK SMITH: How much do you sell your turkeys for usually?

MATTISON: So a 20-pound turkey is about $65.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, have you thought about raising the price just to make it...

MATTISON: No because I don't - see, I can go back to producing more of my own feed and cut my costs down. And as of right now, that's what's going to happen next year is we're going to be doing that. But no, I honestly - I think where I'm at right now is higher than I even want to be charging, but with the prices of - the way the commodities changed the end of this year, I've had to. So that's - hopefully next year I get the price lower. I'm trying to sell them so everybody, a regular person, you know, can afford a fresh turkey, not a frozen one.

VANEK SMITH: What are the biggest expenses for you typically?

MATTISON: Feed.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, feed. OK. And what do you what do turkeys eat mostly?

MATTISON: Ground corn and usually soy substitute or something along those lines.

VANEK SMITH: And how much does it cost to, like, feed turkeys? Is it like thousands or tens of...

MATTISON: Tens of thousands. We're like a fully grain-fed turkey. So it has - I don't know. It's just - yeah, it's going to be more fresh. It's going to have a, I guess, a higher fat content in it, meaning it's going to have more juices and things like that. Yeah, they're chubbier.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: So you've sold three-quarters. That's still a quarter left to go. If you don't sell a quarter of them, like, what happens to the turkeys? What are your options?

MATTISON: That's what I'm working on today, actually. The problem with having fresh meat is I don't have the capabilities of freezing it. So most food banks won't take meat unless it's frozen.

VANEK SMITH: Were you like trying to donate them and that's hard?

MATTISON: This year, I donated - every year we donate quite a few to the homeless shelters in Rochester for all their Thanksgiving dinners. We've been doing that. And that's always a good cause. And I was looking to do that this year. And I'm hearing they don't know what they have planned for what they're doing for those.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

MATTISON: So they're all going to be processed. It's just me figuring out where they're going to end up. So what I'm looking at right now is really just trying to find maybe some meat markets in the city that might want to buy them and cut them up and freeze them on their own to sell at later times or something like that, or else they might be getting turned to dog food.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah. And what about you for your Thanksgiving, what are you doing?

MATTISON: We're still going to have a regular family Thanksgiving.

VANEK SMITH: Are you going to eat Turkey?

MATTISON: I've never - I don't know.

VANEK SMITH: You don't - you're not like a turkey lover? (Laughter).

MATTISON: No. I don't know. I just - I don't know. I've never been a big fan of chicken. I guess I've never been a big fan of really either, so...

VANEK SMITH: You would have like a steak if you could?

MATTISON: Yeah. We'd have prime rib. If it were up to me, Thanksgiving would be like prime rib like Christmas.

VANEK SMITH: This is like turkey farmer sacrilege (laughter).

MATTISON: Yeah. I don't know. The whole old school - I don't know. I guess I appreciate a Thanksgiving dinner every now and then, but with the way I've had it this year, I'm ready to be done.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. No more - yeah. You've been looking at a lot of Turkey for right now.

MATTISON: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact checked by Sean Saldana. Paddy Hirsch is our editor. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: What do we not know about turkeys? Like, what are they like?

MATTISON: So right now, they're very mean. They're just - they're ready to - they've come to the age where they can reproduce. And that's when they start to pick up that kind of bad habits like pecking and things like that.

VANEK SMITH: It's like high school or something.

MATTISON: Yeah. Yeah. They're like teenagers right now is essentially what they are.

VANEK SMITH: Do you have to, like, be a little careful?

MATTISON: Yeah. They'll like chase after you. And if you turn your backs, like, the toms might try to fly up and, like, (unintelligible) at you or scratch you or something.

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