Farmers Feel Impact of Changing Holiday Demand During Pandemic

Thanksgiving 2020 went on as planned and provided Loudoun’s poultry farmers with just as much business as ever. But with less family and friends seated around dinner tables, those farmers will have to reconsider their business models for next year. As for the Christmas tree industry, outlook for this season is still up in the air.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent government-mandated restrictions and effects on societal norms have actually helped the farmers who raise turkeys for Thanksgiving and other meat year-round, contrary to what it’s done to other industries. Elaine Boland, the founder and owner of Fields of Athenry Farm in Middleburg, said that’s because of “panic buying.”

She said that when the pandemic took hold of the nation in mid-March, demand for her farm-raised, hormone- and steroid-free meats quadrupled overnight and stayed that way for the next two-and-a-half months.

“Just like toilet paper and paper towels, they were just stockpiling,” she said about the meat orders she was receiving.

She said business spiked so much that she had to spend $100,000 on improvements to her operations—to purchase new computers, develop a new website to handle increased web traffic, to lease a second refrigerated truck and to buy two new freezer units.

Boland said that while her team before the pandemic was packaging 30 to 50 orders a week, by March they were packaging 170 orders in a week and working 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. She even had to put a cap on the amount of ground beef customers could purchase, since many were ordering 50 to 100 pounds of it at a time.

Now, orders are back down to 60-80 a week, Boland said.

Turkeys on Blue Mojo Farm in Aldie are of the heritage breed, which means they were once wild and can fly and breed on their own. But, contrary to popular request for birds this holiday season, they come in at up-to 25 pounds. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]

The same was true for Blue Mojo Farm in Aldie, which raises ducks, ostriches and heritage-breed turkeys, which were once wild and can fly and breed on their own but take longer to raise.

Owner Eddie Beuerlein said that since the pandemic took hold in March, he has been inundated with requests for birds.

“Pretty much anything we had available, they were buying,” he said.

Two years ago, however, Beuerlein said the demand just wasn’t there.

At Chapel Ford Farm just north of Leesburg—formerly known as If It Flies Farm—owner Alex Bates said requests doubled when COVID hit.

And while requests remained high this Thanksgiving season, farmers realized a shift in their customers’ buying habits.

Boland said many of her customers requested turkeys weighing 10-12 pounds, as opposed to the typical request of 18-25 pounds. Boland said she understands that the requests for smaller birds comes in response to smaller family gatherings to help stunt the spread of COVID-19.

But, Boland said, requests for 10- to 12-pound turkeys are difficult to accommodate because turkeys generally grow to be much larger than that. She and her team begin raising turkeys for Thanksgiving in February, which means they couldn’t meet many requests for smaller birds, since the turkeys had already grown to a certain weight by the time fall rolled around.

“It’s just not the nature of a turkey to grow that little,” Boland said. “That’s like a big chicken.”

The same sorts of requests came in at Blue Mojo Farm, which slaughtered and sold only 10 turkeys this Thanksgiving.

Beuerlein said many of the requests he received were for lower-weight birds. He said many people this year switched their requests from the typical 20- to 30-pound turkeys to 12- to 15-pound turkeys.

“That’s more like a hen,” Beuerlein said.

Beuerlein said that while only a third of his 30 birds were ready for slaughter this Thanksgiving—with the rest still growing for next year or being raised solely as breeders—he still received “massive interest” this season.

He said that if he had known there was going to be such a high demand this Thanksgiving, he would have prepared sooner. It takes a year and a half to raise heritage-breed turkeys.

Bates said the same types of smaller requests were true for the poultry processing plant he works at in Pennsylvania. Although his Loudoun-based Chapel Ford Farm wasn’t prepared to take any Thanksgiving turkey orders this year, about 70% of the processing plant’s requests this year were for 10- to 12-pound birds as opposed to the typical 15- to 20-pound requests.

An Uncertain Christmas Season

Meanwhile, another type of seasonal farm—Christmas tree farms—are getting ready for the beginning of their seasons.

Steve Wolff, one of the owners of Snickers Gap Tree Farm which opens Friday, said while he’s seen an “unprecedented” number of photographers requesting shoots at the farm this year, since they’re not open, it’s too soon to tell whether that points to a huge demand for the trees. He said he’s been talking to his neighbors at B Chord Brewing, Bluemont Vineyard and Great Country Farms to understand what customers have wanted during the pandemic.

“We’re hoping for a good year,” Wolff said. “You know, all the word is that people like to get outside and have fun, so we’re hoping that works well for us.”

But further south at Middleburg Christmas Trees, owner Frans Kok has already decided the farm will not open at all this year—with an exception for the Russian Embassy, a longtime customer that brings its own crew to handle the trees.

The decision not to open came as Christmas tree farms are still dealing with fungal infections that have begun killing some types of trees in Loudoun’s warming climate. That has also led to difficulties for people looking for Christmas trees or resellers, such as the Boy Scouts, as the fungal infections have led to a shortage of trees around the state.

“Financially, it’s horrible—you have a crop, and you can’t harvest it,” Kok said. “If you walk around on our farm, you see a couple of burn piles that are like 12 feet high. It’s costly to cut them down, and then it’s costly to drag them over and pile them up, and no revenues this year other than a couple of thousand dollars from the Russian embassy, but that doesn’t even begin to make a dent in anything.”

But he had to make the call early, and Kok decided safety comes first. A self-described “numbers-oriented guy,” Kok did the math on bringing hundreds of people to the 125-acre farm and realized that, almost inevitably, some of them would unwittingly be carrying the coronavirus.

“They need to be guided, so they have a congregation of people, and then I have some very vulnerable personnel who are very familiar with the farm, who have worked for us for 15 or 20 years,” Kok said. “But they’re vulnerable because of heart conditions, chemotherapy because of cancer, liver transplants, and I can’t replace those people, because I can’t give them the amount of experience that they would need in order to be useful to the client.”

And while many turkey farmers are taking Thanksgiving Day to themselves, they’re getting right back at it this Friday to begin preparing for Christmas themselves.

At Fields of Athenry, Boland said people generally request prime rib roasts and lamb crown roasts for Christmas. But this year, those requests are also coming in at much smaller sizes than before.

Boland said her customers are requesting 3- to 6-pound prime rib roasts as opposed to 10- to 12-pound cuts. But, she said, that’s OK because it’s much easier to cut prime rib and lamb to a certain size, since customers aren’t purchasing the whole cow or lamb like they are with turkeys.

The deadline to order meat for Christmas dinner from Fields of Athenry Farm is Dec. 14.

While Blue Mojo typically doesn’t take many requests for Christmas dinner, they’ll still fulfill some. But customers should know the heritage-breed turkeys currently living on the farm are much larger than what they might be looking for this season.

At Chapel Ford Farm, Bates isn’t planning to sell Christmas birds at all this year, since, he said, Gov. Ralph Northam’s restrictive orders aren’t allowing him the chance to sell at his usual Christmas markets.

Moving past this season and toward Thanksgiving 2021, Bates said he’s planning for up to 90% of the turkey requests he receives next year at Chapel Ford Farm to come in at lower weights.

To accommodate those requests, Bates said he would buy his two-month-old turkeys a month later than normal so that when it comes time to slaughter them just before Thanksgiving, they will be less mature and lighter. He said the taste of the turkeys doesn’t change if they’re harvested at a younger age.

And next year, Kok hopes things will be back to normal, and he will be able to welcome people back to the farm safely with widespread immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19, and possibly widespread rapid testing if the virus lingers.

“The Christmas tree, in the end, is just a Christmas tree,” Kok said.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

Deputy Editor Renss Greene contributed to this report.

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