It’s Thanksgiving Season again. It’s time for us to reflect on the year and to think about the things that we are thankful for. It’s (in my opinion) the greatest of the holidays. It’s largely non-denominational so everyone of every color and creed can participate without feeling out of place. It’s a holiday that does not require a gift-all it asks is that we gather in family or friend groups, enjoy each others company, and at least pretend to be appreciative of what we have, what we have experienced, and of who surrounds us.
It’s THE holiday where food is front and center to the enjoyment. And it’s the time of year that I find myself seriously trying to understand how our food system works.
As I was driving into town today to deliver the last few of our own Thanksgiving turkeys, an ad came on the radio. Please keep in mind that if NPR had been broadcasting anything but Prairie Home Companion I never would have been forced to listen to commercial radio. Nonetheless, my drive coincided perfectly with the 5? hours each Sunday that NPR lets Garrison Keillor into their studio to drink all their booze and whisper/mumble into the microphone almost all day. Anyway, I was listening to a local station and an ad came on for a local butcher shop selling turkeys for $0.77 per pound. And it got me wondering (this happens every single Thanksgiving) how this is possible.
Here’s the math on our turkeys this season. Maybe one of you can help me better understand how the meat economy works!
April 10th: 40 little turkeys arrive! We bought a mix of Bourbon Reds and Midget White turkeys. Cost on the chicks, delivered, was about $11.25/each. The mailman called to tell us they were at the post office and we picked them up around 7:30 AM in Lennox. Turkeys are different than chickens. The mother bird teaches the babies how to eat and drink. Because we had so many we had no way of knowing which ones were eating and which ones weren’t…until the next night when some of them started dying! We lost 5 birds to this…very, very sad. After about 5 weeks indoors and under heat lamps we moved them outside to an old poultry building on the farm. We’re still not sure how, but somehow one of our cats (Felix) broke into the building and killed another 7 birds. We shored up the building, Felix licked his chops and the remaining turkeys licked their wounds. Down to 28 birds. A couple of weeks later we moved the survivors to the chicken coop to temporarily live with their dumber cousins. Then another rookie mistake: one of us forgot to close the chicken door one night and some kind of predator got in and killed 8 turkeys, a duck, and a few chickens. And then there were twenty! We ended up losing one more bird that appeared to be killed by a bird of prey while roosting. Very odd..
So 19 turkeys survived out of 40. So let’s talk about revenues first. One lesson I learned from my days at a desk was that it’s FUN to manage ABOVE the line! Selling stuff is fun…it’s the part about managing the associated expenses that’s not so much fun…so after butchering the birds we ended up with 236 1/2 total pounds of dressed turkeys for an average weight of 12.5 lbs. (technically, they’re undressed, aren’t they?) We had decided to donate a couple of birds to local charities as auction items, so we ended up selling:
17 birds x 12.5 lbs. x $10/LB = $2125 total revenue
Bird Cost: $450
Electricity (heat lamps): $40 (estimated)
Feed: $1134.75 (89 bags of feed at $12.75/bag)
Supplies: $37 (additional feeders, waterers)
Time: $380 (15 minutes a day at $7.25/hour for our time)
Butchering time/supplies $125.75 (6 people for 2 1/2 hours at $7.25/hour PLUS $32 in supplies)
Fuel to deliver turkeys: $35
TOTAL EXPENSES: $2202.50
So…subtracting expenses from revenues and you get a net loss of $77.50. A couple of things to note: things would have been a bit better if we hadn’t lost so many birds early in the season. We also could have added $250 in revenue if we hadn’t made the donations, but it’s part of what our farm is about. But remember-we operate a fairly large vegetable farm too, so our feed costs are much, much lower than they would have been if we hadn’t been able to feed them hundreds of pounds of squash, tomatoes, melons, etc. Also, and I didn’t add this to the costs, the turkeys ate approximately 4,000 of our onions back in August. At an average retail price of $.75, they ate another $3000 that I didn’t figure in. (joking, but only partly. They did eat the onions) Note that we did not account for building costs, depreciation, insurance, etc. And finally, the time we spent with these birds is grossly underestimated. But since we didn’t pay ourselves anyway, what does it matter?
So..here’s where things come apart for me: our average CHICK cost us $23.68 after you factor in the cost for the birds that perished. (their survival rate is never 100%) Our largest dressed bird weighed 18.5 pounds and sold for $185. And the guy on the radio was selling 18.5 pound birds for $14.25 EACH. And he wasn’t growing them himself-he’s merely re-selling them!
This exact same scenario plays out almost every single time that we purchase a factory raised food product-meat, seafood, or vegetable.
Color me puzzled. Have a great holiday season everyone.