In the News

Thanksgiving dinner is going to be more expensive this year 

Kansas City Star | Daniel Desrochers

The trip to the local grocery store for your annual Thanksgiving feast is going to be more expensive this year. “Prices are going to be higher, full stop,” said Donna Ginther, an economics professor at the University of Kansas.

“Thanksgiving dinner is going to cost more.”

The costlier meal has become an exhibit in Congressional Republicans’ case against President Joe Biden and the Democrats, who are pushing to pass a $1.7 trillion bill that would pump more money into the country’s social safety net.

“Soaring inflation and supply chain woes are going to make this Thanksgiving the most expensive in history,” Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said last week. “Inflation is hurting everyone, from those at the checkout counter to the farmers and ranchers who are producing the food for our Thanksgiving tables.”

There has been inflation at the grocery store since the beginning of the pandemic. As the service industry shut down last year and then sputtered back into reopening, people increased how much they were eating at home.

Ginther said two things are causing the supply chain problems: companies had too much product last year and made the decision to scale back, which means it will take some time for them to scale back up.

Then there’s the labor shortage. Four million fewer people are working now than before the pandemic, in part because of an increase in retirements and challenges finding childcare. That, combined with people having and spending more money, has increased demand. And demand pulls prices up. “The reasons why are complicated and unprecedented,” Ginther said. “We’ve never done this before where we had to stop the economy in its tracks and then restart it, so there are all these economic dislocations that take time to work out.”

Peter Pierson, project manager for the Kansas Specialty Crop Growers Association, said he sees the supply chain issues from the pandemic as a further reason to increase local production of crops. “Policy did not create this, but just the reality of distribution systems and cultivation efforts have caused this,” he said.

Here’s how it’s affecting farmers who produce the Thanksgiving meal and those who consume it: Note: Average retail prices and percentage increases are based on a report from the American Farm Bureau Federation.

TURKEY Used for: eating, centerpiece, festive cheer. Average retail price: $23.99 for a 16-pound bird Increase from 2020: 23.7%

There have not been many supply chain issues for turkey farmers, according to Beth Breeding, the vice president of marketing and communications for the National Turkey Federation. Instead, the issues are labor, processing and transportation.

“We’re really seeing that food prices in general have increased, there’s no doubt about that,” Breeding said over the sound of gobbling. “But as far as the holiday turkey goes, there are still some really great deals to be had.” Farmers spend a year raising their “freezer birds” so there isn’t a shortage, according to Greg Doering, a spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

That said, people have been buying early this year. Turkey sales in October were up 200% compared to October 2020, according to the National Turkey Federation. In the first week of November, they were up 110% from last year.

CRANBERRIES Used for: cranberry sauce, festive cheer, stringing around the Christmas tree Average retail price: $2.98 per 12 oz. bag Increase from 2020: 10.7%

Any shortage of fresh cranberries at the store this year has less to do with the supply chain and more to do with a short crop. Cranberries are a perennial crop and so farmers have to protect the fruit bud throughout the year.

Last fall a cold snap damaged the vines in Wisconsin, which produces the most cranberries of any state.

Then spring temperatures fluctuated, causing more trouble. In Massachusetts, which also produces a large chunk of the nation’s cranberries, there was some fruit rot, which is usually a result of warm and wet temperatures. “Everybody’s crop was off except maybe New Jersey,” said Tom Lochner, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cranberry Grower’s Association.

That isn’t to say the cranberry industry isn’t facing the same supply chain issues as other farmers. Aluminum prices have increased and that makes things difficult for farmers who sometimes have to create culverts and bulkheads for water control. Plus the cost of fertilizer increased. But when it comes to buying fresh cranberries for the holidays, Lochner advised buying a little extra now and keeping them in the freezer for Christmas.

“If they see them, get them, because we don’t expect to be packing very much fresh fruit after Thanksgiving,” he said.

POTATOES Used for: mashed potatoes, potato gratin Average retail price: $2.96 for five pounds Increase from 2020: 16% The biggest thing standing between people getting a heaping serving of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving is the labor shortage in trucking.

While potato farmers have had a harder time finding fertilizer, that’s more likely to affect next year’s harvest. The potatoes we eat around the Thanksgiving holiday are usually planted in March or April in the northern parts of the country. Harvest starts in late August and finishes by October.

“Prices (of potatoes) are up a bit over last year, mainly to do with the fact that demand is so strong,” said John Toaspern, the chief marketing officer of Potatoes USA.

“Retail has remained elevated and food service is recovering, so you have both demand components.” This year, Maine had a particularly good crop, but farmers have had trouble getting potatoes down to New York because of the driver shortage. That’s less of a problem in the Western states, where they often use trains.

Still, some potato farmers in the Pacific Northwest lost some of their crop during the extreme heat this summer, when many places in the region were experiencing record setting temperatures.

“Demand is really strong, supply is a little bit tight, so they can charge a little bit more than they have been,” Toaspern said. “And that increased transportation cost has to be passed along to someone.” (While not the same, Kay Rentzel, executive director of the Sweet Potato Council, said “there’s plenty of supply available for anyone who wants to purchase sweet potatoes.”)

WHEAT Used for: rolls, pie crust, the stale bread that helps you make dressing, etc. Average Retail Price: $3.05 for 12 Increase from 2020: 14.6% Wheat growers are noticing the same trends as other farmers — increasing fuel prices (which can make fertilizing and harvesting a crop more expensive), a shortage of drivers and difficulty getting parts.

Most of those issues didn’t affect this year’s crop, however, which went into the ground by April or May. They were harvesting in June or July, when fuel prices weren’t as much of an issue. About half of the wheat is exported. A lot of the local wheat will go to the mill to be turned into flour.

From there it goes to baking companies or is packaged to sell straight from the shelves. The wheat crop was good this year and the price is going up, though that doesn’t necessarily mean farmers are feeling rich.

“Whenever we see strong commodity prices, the input suppliers (people who sell supplies to farmers for planting) tend to take advantage of that,” said Daryl Strouts, CEO of Kansas Wheat Alliance. “Whether their prices are going up or not, they’re raising their prices to their customers.”

Any increase in the wheat or flour that’s going into the bread on the Thanksgiving table likely reflects a labor or transportation issue after the wheat lands at the flour mills. Strouts said there’s only about a nickel’s worth of wheat in your average loaf of bread. “The cost of the wheat in there is pretty minimal,” he said. “They always say it’s the wrapper on the loaf of bread that’s the most expensive thing.”

DAIRY Used for: milk, cheese, butter, cream, which in turn help create green bean casserole, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, etc.

Average retail price for whole milk: $3.30 per gallon Increase from 2020: 7.1% Dairy farmers are having a hard time with the supply chain, according to Stephanie Eckroat, the executive director of Kansas Dairy. Their difficulties span from getting cleaning products they need for milking to having trouble replacing parts when milk machines break down. They are also having a hard time finding labor.

“The dairy farmers are not getting any more money,” Eckroat said. “They are struggling to get supplies, they are having to pay more for supplies and they’re not getting any more for their milk. And if they’re charging more for the milk, it’s not my dairymen who are benefiting from that at all.”