Throughout the country turkey farmers and retailers alike have had to roll the dice: what would pandemic Thanksgiving look like? Would Thanksgiving be cancelled? The coronavirus pandemic will interrupt 50 years of steadily increasing turkey consumption and holiday traditions may change for good. Social distancing and travel restrictions will yield smaller holiday gatherings, therefore smaller turkeys may be in demand this coming holiday season. This shift in demand is causing havoc for turkey farmers, processors, and retailers who typically have their plans finalized months ahead of time.

Throughout the United States’ 2,500 turkey farms, farmers are trying to predict demand and fear they may be stuck with too many big turkeys and not enough small ones. Processors worry that they will face the same challenges beef-processing plants faced in the early days of the pandemic as outbreaks forced them to cease operations due to the threat of mandatory shutdowns from county health departments. Retailers are scrambling to adapt to consumers’ ever-changing demands of more finished meals-to-go, turkey by the pound, turkey parts, or even plant-based products.

The United States is the world’s largest turkey producer and its largest exporter, with 10% of production going abroad. Butterball projects a sizeable increase in ‘immediate-family-only’ celebrations. They also anticipate consumers to look for ways to make Thanksgiving easier and simpler, while reducing the number of visits to the store. The Butterball Turkey Talk Line, which answers consumers’ Thanksgiving cooking questions, is predicting greater demand than ever from first-time cooks who are not heading home for the holidays. First-time holiday cooks may choose more familiar proteins like ham, beef, or seafood but industry experts believe most Americans will stick to turkey because it is tradition.