ALLENDALE — Upwards of 35,000 tom turkeys circle the floors in several of Rick Sietsema’s Ottawa County barns.
As more people consume animal proteins, turkey farmers like Rick are looking at alternative options to diversify offerings — be it ready-to-eat meals or ready-to-cook products. However, as competition from other animal protein producers stiffens, there is some cause for concern.
In part, Rick worries are that consumers don’t have the accessibility to purchase turkey the same way they do for chicken or beef, which he’s trying to change.
One customer at a time.
“For some reason, you can have a hot chicken sandwich anywhere, where we don’t have the ability to serve hot turkey drumsticks,” said Rick of the Allendale-based Sietsema Farms. “Our portion size doesn’t market well with other proteins’ portion sizes. A billion chicken wings are (ordered) every year for the Super Bowl. … With turkey legs, you grab it with two hands. In some cases, it’s the size of a bat.
“The chicken industry has done a better job with portion size and marketing.”
According to the National Chicken Council (NCC), turkey meat consumption was 16.2 pounds per capita in 2018, down from 16.4 pounds in 2017. This year, the NCC forecasts turkey meat consumption to decline to 16.1 pounds per capita. In comparison, chicken, beef and pork consumption on a per capita basis were all up in 2018, with the proteins projected to increase even more so in 2019, according to the report.
Despite this downward trend, Rick said the turkey industry is gaining traction in new markets, such as selling to food-service operations in hospitals and government buildings.
“Proteins are economically attractive right now,” said Sietsema, noting that turkey producers are now selling small-petite turkey breasts as an option for consumers, including marketing product to various restaurant chains.
The move, he said, is in response to other proteins’ accessibility and ubiquitous nature on fast-food menus.
“Consumer trends are driving how our poultry producers respond to that market,” said Allison Brink, the executive director of the Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, which represents poultry producers in Michigan. “There's an adjustment in the poultry industry in general to meet those markets.”
Brink added to Michigan Farm News that “protein consumption is going to increase” over the next several years.
“From a poultry producer's perspective, we want to have our protein at the table for consumers,” she said. “You can talk organic, you can talk antibiotic-free, you can talk cage-free eggs — these are all consumer trends that are being driven somewhat by food purchasers. McDonald's, Costco, Nestle, I mean, worldwide food companies are driving some of these trends by wanting to provide specific products to their consumers. In turn, our farms have to adjust to that.
“In Michigan, I think our producers are at the forefront of meeting those challenges and those trends from their customers, which are the food purchasers.”
Like Brink, Harley Sietsema of the Michigan Turkey Producers LLC said consumers are driving many of the changes in the industry — from organic turkeys to “ambiguous and misleading” retailer labeling.
“This creates a perception that organic product is better than traditional product,” said Harley, chair of Michigan Turkey, in regards to organic turkey production. “The reality is that the food quality is no different. These food trends get imposed on the industry and certain portions of society perceive there is value in them, so we try to produce what the consumer wants. We are now raising most of our turkeys as NAE birds (No Antibiotic Ever). When you ask the general public a question regarding food issues, they generally will support what sounds good to them, but may not fully understand all the implications of their decisions.
“We continue to see new trends and descriptive food labels, and we will do our best to provide the general public with the type of food they wish to spend their food dollars on.”
As a result, Harley said Michigan Turkey, a grower-owned turkey processing co-operative located in Grand Rapids, has made significant changes to its website in order to educate the consumer. In addition, he said the industry’s been active in “trying to promote the center-of-plate menu items for homeowners and restaurants.”
“We invested quite a bit of money the last few years,” Harley added. “What Rick said is somewhat true: … ‘(Turkey) is a different size, so it needs to be marketed differently.’... We lose out on the volume of the fast food-sized product because of the size of the parcel. A consumer doesn’t buy as much turkey as chicken. Historically, people think of turkey as the food item at Thanksgiving, but we have been very active on the Internet and on the website in getting the turkey (name) out there.”
According to Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan has “an outstanding group of turkey producers in Michigan who have adapted very well to change over the last 20 years.”
“They are tremendous business people who have faced adversity and worked diligently to overcome it,” he said. “Their ability to continue to produce high-quality protein for our consuming public is important now and will continue to be in the future.”
Brink echoed a similar sentiment of farmers.
“Sustainability for these farms begins with profitability,” she said. “That’s why (producers) are adjusting to meet consumer trends in the marketplace.”