Talking Turkeys

20 November 2016

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and we at Gro Intelligence have turkey on our minds. Roasting the turkey is a proud American and Canadian tradition; the bird is often the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal—along with pumpkin pie, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Benjamin Franklin once called it a “Bird of Courage,” and endorsed it as “much more respectable than the bald eagle.” (Some historians have even suggested that Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird of the United States.)

With the help of Gro, we’ve uncovered interesting trends on turkey production.

US Turkey Production

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and we at Gro Intelligence have turkey on our minds. Roasting the turkey is a proud American and Canadian tradition; the North American bird is often the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal—along with pumpkin pie, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Benjamin Franklin once called it a “Bird of Courage,” and endorsed it as “much more respectable than the bald eagle.” (Some historians have even suggested that Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird of the United States.)

With the help of Gro, we’ve uncovered some interesting trends on global turkey production. The bird is indigenous to North and Central America, where most of its production occurs. The US is by far the world’s largest producer of turkey meat, producing about as much as the rest of the world put together. 

Global Turkey Production
US produces about half of the world's turkeys.

Within the US, production is concentrated in five states: Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, and Missouri. These states combined produce more than half of the country’s approximately 230 million turkeys raised each year. 

Turkeys tend to be consumed over Thanksgiving and Christmas. Over the course of 2016, the USDA estimates that the average American will eat 17 pounds of turkey. That is a whole pound more per capita than US consumption in 2012. US Consumers have developed a taste for various turkey product lines that compete with other proteins for consumption year round.

An interesting thing has happened with the number of turkeys produced in the US. Instead of keeping pace with population growth, the number of turkeys produced in the US has been declining for two decades. In 1996, the US produced 300 million turkeys, and production has steadily fallen from that peak; by 2016, US turkey production will have fallen to around 243 million birds. US producers were not helped by an outbreak of avian flu between 2014 and 2015. The flu mostly hit birds in the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, the country’s top producer. In response, several trading partners—including Mexico and China, two of the largest importers of US turkey meat—instituted partial or full export bans on US turkey. The flu hurt production and exports, leading also to some domestic supply issues, though the industry has mostly recovered by the second half of 2016. 

While the number of turkeys has declined, production of turkeys by weight has not fallen significantly. The US produced around 3.2 million tonnes of turkey in both 1996 and 2014; in fact, production by weight peaked in 2008, years after the number of turkeys peaked in 1996. That the production by weight has stayed steady while the number of turkeys produced has fallen suggests that turkeys have gotten much heavier. That fact is borne out by USDA NASS data; which shows that the weight of an average turkey has more than doubled between 1929 and 2012, from 13.2 pounds to nearly 30 pounds.

US Turkey Production
While the number of turkeys produced in the US has declined, the production by weight has held fairly steady.

US turkey production has largely stagnated for the last two decades, as has domestic turkey consumption. In 2014, Americans ate about the same amount of turkey as they did in 2000—around 2.2 million tonnes. But while American consumption has held fairly steady, more countries around the world have developed a taste for the bird, allowing the US to increase exports. In 1990, the US exported 25,000 tonnes of turkey meat; that figure has reached 366,000 tonnes by 2014, a fourteen fold increase over 25 years. 

US Turkey Production and Consumption
While turkey production and consumption have stayed steady, exports have been rising.

Mexico receives the bulk of US turkey exports. Although the number of turkeys produced has declined in the past two decades, stronger turkey exports might be a boon for US turkey farmers. The value of turkey exports is expected to keep growing, and producers are relying on exports to generate the growth that has been missing from stagnant domestic demand.

Still, the rest of the world mostly is not consuming turkeys the way Americans like to. Most exports are in the form of lower-valued turkey parts, like ground meat that can be put into sausages. It may be a while before the rest of the world becomes as fond of the bird as Benjamin Franklin was.

US Turkey Exports
The destination of US turkey exports? Overwhelmingly to Mexico.
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