Getty Images / WIRED
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge flings open the windows of his darkened home, yelling to a boy passing by to purchase a prize turkey “twice the size of tiny Tim” to gift to his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit and his family. In just a few sentences, Charles Dickens’ iconic tale helped to push the exotic turkey – which in Victorian times was far too expensive for an average family – to permanently replace the humble goose as the fashionable fowl of choice for Christmas lunch.
Only this holiday, most tables won’t be groaning under the weight of a humongous bird, child-size or otherwise. Thanks to the pandemic restrictions imposed this year, most people’s Christmases have been downsized, and so have their appetites: 2020 is officially the year of the tiny turkey.The first UK lockdown in March coincided with the time that many farmers have to decide how many poults (baby turkeys) they planned to buy to fatten and sell for Christmas. By Summer, no one really still knew with any certainty how long the pandemic would last, but as the weeks passed, the prospect of thousands of huge turkeys being left unbought and uneaten because of Covid-19 restrictions became a real concern. With every day that passed turkeys were growing quickly, and farmers were running out of time to make a decision.
By September, panic set in. There was no sign that the “rule of six” would be relaxed and the prospect of a coronavirus Christmas was almost certain, but the turkeys had already been bought and were getting fatter every single day. Some turkey farmers were concerned that there would be an over-supply of birds that no one would buy. Though turkeys can range from three kilograms to 20kg, many birds would feed double the amount of people allowed to gather by the government. So farmers had to decide whether they should slaughter turkeys eight to ten days earlier and freeze them in an attempt to stop them growing too large, or even to cull some of the flock to hedge some of their losses. There was also talk about putting turkeys on a diet.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) urged families who are staying at home this Christmas to buy the same size British turkey as normal to support turkey farmers in a “difficult year”. “Turkey producers have been adapting their businesses and working hard to ensure there are enough turkeys for everyone,” says National Farmers Union turkey group chairman Michael Bailey.
For small turkey farmers, who rely exclusively on the Christmas period to sell their entire stock, the holiday restrictions could have spelled disaster.
“At the point where we were discussing this [the turkey issue], there was very limited scope for changing anything, really,” says Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council. There were some efforts to manage the feed to stop birds growing, but he says it’s “extremely difficult” and isn’t necessarily effective. There is no tech solution or logistical framework for farmers to turn back the clock and avoid tonnes of wasted turkey. So farmers braced themselves for the worst, and mixed wheat in with the rest of the feed to fill the birds’ bellies without fattening them too much.
What happened next was unexpected.
By early December, there were no turkeys left at the Shropshire farm owned by Jade Stock, a farmer and former financier. Here and in farms across the country, thousands of turkeys have already been plucked, packaged and are being shipped to homes ready for Christmas dinner. Stock, who set up Out and About Poultry in 2012 grew her farm from ten free-range birds to several hundred. During the first lockdown in March, she decided to only offer small birds. Now she’s sold out.
“We’ve got nothing over six kilos,” she explains. We just thought we don’t know how this is going to go.” The rearing process is exactly the same, she says, “apart from the little buggers can still fly every night for nearly six months, so we’ve been pulling them out of hedges and fences”.
Bigger turkeys sometimes get too heavy, and their bodies can’t cope and unfortunately they do die, Stock explains. “Whereas these smaller ones were just fitter, leaner, they really thrived. We had them on absolutely ad-lib feed so they have feed available 24-hours a day. Towards the end, we mixed some wheat in which gives them a bit of a yellowy colour. It just helps them not to put on too much weight towards the end, but still gives them a really good diet.”
Over nine million turkeys are consumed on Christmas day, but research released this month by the Too Good to Go national food waste app showed that farmers were right to be concerned. Around 30 per cent of Britons planned to buy a smaller turkey than normal, with two-thirds opting for compact and easy-to-carve turkey crowns. Only 17 per cent planned to buy a big bird for Christmas.
“Seasonal producers do anywhere from say, 50 birds up to 1,000. It wouldn’t take much to make it very difficult for those farmers,” Griffiths says.“If we hustle and get through the Christmas period, I think there’ll be lots of sighs of relief.”
Farmers like Stock and Paul Kelly, the managing director of Essex-headquartered Kelly Turkeys, who rely on the general public rather than pubs and restaurants, are among those who have seen demand grow this year. “Sales have been incredibly strong,” Kelly says, up 14 per cent on the year before. His company decided to place a larger order for a normal amount of turkey weights and ended up with over 62,000 birds. “We did sell out of the early ones quickly, so people just ordered the next size up. It doesn’t make any difference, because people want turkey for Christmas.”
He sold out of tiny turkeys by mid-November, and believes the trend toward the small turkey has been coming for the last 15 to 20 years as our Christmas celebrations get smaller and people spend less time with extended family. More people are ordering four or five-kilogram turkeys to feed up to ten people, he explains. He believes that the rise in demand was caused by the 4.8 million Brits that would have gone on holiday for Christmas, and all of the people who would have had their turkey dinner at pubs and restaurants, who are stuck at home.
“People say, ‘Are people going to get a duck? Or, you know, free range chicken or something like that for Christmas lunch?’ No,” argues Kelly. “The reality is, no matter how many people you’ve got around the table, you don’t have a chicken for Christmas, you have a turkey.
He’s more worried about what comes after Christmas. Kelly’s turkeys, which are also free-range, are plucked by hand. After Brexit, he’s concerned that farms like his are no longer going to be able to rely on EU workers to help. Kelly, who has a Guinness World Record for turkey plucking (in under two minutes), honed his skill when families used to pluck the turkeys together “to earn a few quid”.
“Those days are over now, so we have to rely on migrant labour,” he says. “In Chelmsford, Essex, if you put an advert in the paper for people to come pluck turkeys they will laugh in your face.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
More great stories from WIRED
🏥 The devastating human cost of a mental health data breach
🇷🇺 Russia’s vaccine has attracted criticised. Here’s what is really happening with the Sputnik V vaccine
🍿 The Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe is being torn apart
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn