At the Whole Foods near the Vox office, a store brand free range turkey costs $2.69 per pound. A free-range heritage breed turkey is $3.69 per pound. A free-range organic turkey goes for $3.99 per pound. Those are 37- and 48-percent price differences, and they're both far more than you'd pay for a so-called "conventional" turkey. At a nearby Safeway, the store-brand turkeys are selling for 59 cents per pound, and Butterball turkeys are at 88 cents.
Everyone knows that organic food is more expensive than conventional food, so it's easy to shrug at this. But exactly why is your expensive turkey so wallet-draining?
Organic turkey feed is expensive
The biggest difference between organic and conventional turkeys is feed — that accounts for around half the cost difference between the organic and the conventional turkey, according to David Harvey, the US Department of Agriculture's top poultry economist (and the man you see quoted in dozens of turkey-related stories every November).
Nationally, he says, conventional turkey feed costs around 41 cents a pound on average. Organic feed can be significantly more costly. At Nick's Organic Farm in Potomac, Maryland, which both raises organic turkeys and sells feed, it's $1,080 a ton for broiler feed, or 54 cents a pound when people buy in bulk from him. That's just one example, but it's a nearly 32-percent price jump.
Organic feed is itself more expensive because it can take a lot more work to grow the organic grains that go into it. Not only can organic grain farmers not use many herbicides and insecticides on the market to kill off weeds and bugs that can lower yields (they are very limited in the types of pesticides they can use), but to even get certified organic, a farmer has to refrain from using those chemicals for three years prior, as this guide from Iowa State University explains.
Supply and demand in the grain market also into the equation here, says Wayne Martin, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota.
"Fewer farmers are willing to raise grain organically, when demand is high and prices are good for conventional crops," he writes. And though corn and soybean prices have fallen off recently, they had in the last couple of years been sky-high, meaning less incentive to get into the organic feed business.
Organic turkey processing
Organic turkey-growers have to send their turkeys to special organic turkey processing plants. These can be more costly to operate than other plants.
Most that do organic turkeys also process conventional turkeys but have to take lots of special measures to make sure the two operations are kept entirely separate — the types of products used in organic processing, like cleaning solvents, can be more expensive, and organic plants can only use certain approved pest control methods. As this guide from the State of Minnesota points out, they can also require substantially more training for employees to make sure that non-organic substances don't contaminate organic areas. And on top of that, they have to be inspected regularly and pay a fee to be certified — not a huge cost, but it adds to the total cost along the supply chain.
Organic turkey health risks
Organic turkeys face higher health risks than their conventional peers for a few reasons. One is that they are allowed to go outdoors, meaning they can risk death from both predators and the elements, according Martin. Not only that, but farmers can't treat them with antibiotics when they get sick — instead, they might use probiotics or apple cider vinegar. More risk to birds means more dead birds, means smaller supply, means bigger prices.
Those are the big factors that go into making an organic turkey, but if you tack on any of the other modifiers — say, if you want a pasture-raised, organic, heritage turkey — the price factors can increase dramatically.
Pastured turkey is even pricier
You might picture your organic turkey as skipping through a pasture somewhere, but it's altogether possible it was raised in a space nearly as tight as the confinement turkeys experience.
"An organic turkey is required to have access to the outdoors. But the bird doesn't have to have access to any particular amount of outdoors," explains Nick Maravell, owner of Nick's Organic Farm. "So if you have 5,000 birds, you don't have to have so many square feet of access per bird."
But if you do get a pastured bird, that could create a much heftier price tag. That's because pasturing can really alter what farmers call its feed-conversion ratio — the amount of feed you have to give it to add a pound of meat. According to a 2007 estimate from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the average feed conversion ratio for a confinement turkey is 2.5 pounds of feed for every pound of meat, but that can be far higher for pastured birds. Just as you would more easily gain weight if you sat behind a tray of Oreos all day than if you went outside and wandered around, a confined bird will be way better at putting on weight.
"Pastured birds are just not going to put on weight as quickly as a bird that's grown no more than 50 feet from food," explains Harvey.
Organic turkey labor costs
Keeping turkeys in a giant confinement house with automated feeders can require very little work per turkey. However, the amount of labor that goes into a turkey can grow substantially depending on what type of special treatment the birds are getting.
More labor goes into the feed for an organic turkey, and if you get a turkey that's pastured, that also makes for a lot more labor. Pasturing a flock means you have to re-pasture it on new land eventually. That takes a lot more work (and more land per turkey) than a cursory walk-through of a turkey confinement house. This also means it can be tougher to scale up pastured turkey production as efficiently as scaling up a confinement operation.
Heritage turkey breed costs
Not only does how the birds are raised matter; different types of turkeys put on weight differently. Broad-breasted whites (the breed you're likely to buy) are bred, as the name might suggest, to have huge breasts (incidentally, those huge white-meat breasts people love to eat also get in the way of the birds' mating, so these birds are bred through artificial insemination). Broad-breasted birds tend to put on weight more efficiently than the so-called "heritage breeds," a broad name given to a several types of turkeys that are closer to the less-genetically-altered forefathers of today's huge-breasted monsters. Really, one way to think about it isn't that heritage birds are expensive; it's that the other turkeys are bred to be cheap.
"When people are selling those heritage breed turkeys, some of those breeds don't convert feed quite as efficiently as conventional breeds," explains Harvey. "Conventional growers put tons and tons of breeding work into it for that purpose."
According to one 2003 study, some of these breeds take more than four, and even more than six pounds of feed per pound of weight gained, the American Livestock Breed Conservancy writes.
Not only that, but it takes most heritage breeds longer to reach market weight. Broad-breasted turkeys take 16 to 22 weeks to reach market weight. For heritage breeds, it's 26 to 28.
Then keep in mind that none of this even takes into account whatever margins retailers try to get on the turkeys they sell. This is, so to speak, how your Thanksgiving (turkey) sausage is made. So if your host picked an $80 bird, maybe don't load up on sides (which are more delicious, we know) and appreciate what went into your exorbitantly priced, pasture-raised main dish.
Corrected. An earlier version of this story said organic farmers do not use pesticides. They can use some, but they are limited (compared to other farmers) in the instances in which they can use pesticides and the types they can use.