The Life and Death of an American Turkey: How a Turkey Gets to Your Thanksgiving Table

November 25, 2019

45 million turkeys are cooked, carved, and consumed on an average Thanksgiving in America. That’s roughly 720 million pounds of meat eaten within the span of one November evening. 

But your turkey’s journey to the Thanksgiving dinner table isn’t as simple as a staggering statistic—at least not for the farmers responsible for raising it and the distributors in charge of the cold chain logistics. For these farmers and distributors, Thanksgiving is a nearly year-round affair, starting all the way back in February and tracing a long, fascinating route to the feast. 

Planning for the season ahead

Eight months to Thanksgiving

By the time February rolls around, most Americans have long since packed away their decorations for the year. But at Pitman Farms in Fresno, California—home to Mary’s Free Range Organic Turkeys—February marks the true start of the holiday season. 

Why so early?

“One reason we get a head start  is to provide enough time for the turkeys to grow and the other is to ensure we get last year’s numbers from distributors while the information is still fresh,” said Dan Sinkay, current manager of Pitman’s.

 

Sinkay explains that turkeys need a minimum of four months to hatch, grow, and process on the farm—five months if you consider the nearly month-long incubation period. Plus, Pitman’s takes into account factors such as the previous year’s average Thanksgiving turkey weight to see if they need to give their turkeys a little more time to grow. Padding for such unknowns can be incredibly valuable to Pitman’s operation, and can make all the difference between an up or down year.

But it’s not just the folks at Pitman’s revving up their operations in the so-called “off-season.” The distributors they work with need to share purchase data from the previous Thanksgiving to inform Pitman’s business decisions for the current year.

By pressing distributors to share that information sooner when it’s still top of mind, Sinkay’s team is able to more accurately forecast turkey count as well as hatching schedules so there’s fewer surprises down the line. 

A turkey is born

Once the optimal number of turkeys is determined, eggs are incubated for roughly 21 days before they hatch. Once the turkeys are born, they’re taken to brewing huts where they’ll spend the next 30 days before they can go outside to range.

“In that first month, you want to keep them close together,” Sinkay said. “They learn from one another—where the water winds are, how to drink from them, and where the food is. You don't want to put a baby chick directly out on an open field because a hawk or an owl will be the end of him.”

Once the month is up, chicks are set free to range on Pitman’s extensive outdoor farmland and are fed a strictly vegetarian diet comprised of corn, soybeans, vitamins, and minerals that passes the non-GMO certified feed inspection—a point of pride for Mary’s Free Range Turkeys. 

“If we were to use even a small percentage of meat in the feed, we’d save millions of dollars on our feed cost each year,” Sinkay said. “It’s a big investment when a company does a vegetarian-fed diet but we’ve found it’s something our customers really care about and it’s something we support.”

One month to Thanksgiving

With less than a month to go, the birds are ready to be processed and delivered to Mary’s Free Range Turkey distributors. 

The first step to process turkeys is to make a small incision in their necks. Once the turkeys are unconscious, Pitman's carefully defeathers the birds before cooling them to a chilly 26 degrees—the minimum temperature poultry can be kept at before it’s considered frozen. Finally, the turkeys are graded, packaged, and prepared for shipping. 

Though more than tens of thousands of Mary’s branded turkeys need to be processed, Pitman’s Farms is able to complete these steps in a single day. This allows for plenty of time to move the turkeys onto pallets, pack them into trucks, and drive them to distributors across California. 

The final turkey countdown  

Two weeks to Thanksgiving

Nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving, it’s all hands on deck at poultry distributor and Samsara customer, A. Tarantino & Sons. 

Since 1917, Tarantino’s has been providing the Bay Area with fresh poultry, seafood, and the kind of customer service that has helped expand the business from a small counter on Polk Street to a large supplier of restaurants and privately owned grocery stores in northern California. 

Though the term ‘Turkey Day’ for most simply doubles as another name for ‘Thanksgiving,’ it has a whole other meaning at Tarantino’s. ‘Turkey Day’ is Saturday, November 16, and it’s prominently written in Sharpie on the company calendar in case anyone forgets. The date marks the arrival of the first of two shipments that together will total over 2,000 turkeys from long-time turkey supplier Pitman Farms.

The turkeys need to be unloaded from Pitman’s trucks and refrigerated until they’re ready to distribute to local grocers and businesses the following week. Friends and family pour in to help—cousins, grandchildren, and college buddies have selflessly volunteered to spend their Saturday morning making sure the Bay Area gets their turkeys on time.

I'm lucky enough to be among the small crowd that's gathered, and the buzz in the air is palpable. It might be 7am but the level of energy and enthusiasm from those who’ve come to help would tell you otherwise. 

“We’ve been waiting for this since Halloween—we get really excited,” said Patrick Hutchins, Anthony’s brother-in-law who has been coming out to help with ‘Turkey Day’ for the last ten years.

Hutchins works as a store leader at Apple’s flagship location in Union Square and finds something really special about a hundred-year-old family-run operation in San Francisco.

“In the city nowadays, things are pretty corporate,” Hutchins said. “You don’t see something like this very often—it’s pretty awesome.”  

“There’s probably three generations of Tarantinos out there right now,” said Julie Tarantino, who runs the back office. She’s brought in donuts and coffee to fuel the employees and volunteers in what appears to have become Tarantino’s very own version of a friendsgiving.

 

Managing cold chain logistics 

To say that cold chain management is important to Tarantino’s would be an understatement. The business relies on accurate temperature monitoring to make sure poultry is kept at the correct temperature before being distributed to different customers. And for the Thanksgiving turkeys, the pressure is on. It’s one meal served on one specific day across the United States; timing is everything and maintaining the product at the correct temperature is do or die.

Before Samsara, Tarantino’s used kitchen thermometers to manually check the temperature of turkeys—but this was problematic in its own right. Not only did it require time and coordination, it also made it impossible to know the temperature of the turkeys outside of the two reported temperatures.

“Even though you’re going in there twice a day to record temperatures, you don’t know what’s going on at times that you’re not there,” said Anthony Tarantino, Tarantino’s general manager and Julie’s son. “You don’t know if someone left a door open, you don’t know if there’s a power outage, or if a cooler temperature simply goes up after work when nobody’s here.”

“Worst case scenario—which has happened to us—you have a cooler fail,” Tarantino said. “In the days before Samsara, this cooler would run at 28 degrees but if that shorted in the middle of the night, we’d get to work and it would be somewhere around 36 to 40 degrees. You would open the cooler door and it would feel warm.”

When something like this happens, it’s a huge hassle. Not only does Tarantino’s need to hire someone to fix the cooler, but it can also cause spoilage to thousands of pounds of product. It’s simply time and money that Tarantino’s would prefer to invest elsewhere.

With Samsara environmental monitors, Tarantino has visibility into cooler temperatures at all times—even when he’s offsite. He’s set up Samsara alerts on his phone so he’s notified if the temperature goes above or below a pre-determined temperature, even by a single degree. 

By taking advantage of advanced temperature monitoring technology, Tarantino’s has peace of mind and is able to maintain the integrity of their products. 

The last turkey haul

Tarantino’s stores the turkeys in their refrigerators on site for a couple of days before they are whisked back onto trucks to be distributed to grocers across northern California, where shoppers have put in pre-orders months in advance to ensure their Thanksgiving meals include the coveted turkey centerpiece. Among the roster of customers is Good Eggs, Golden Gate Meat Company, and Gus’s Community Market. 

While the distance to each customer isn’t far, Tarantino doesn’t take any chances on missed deliveries. Each truck is equipped with Samsara dash cams both inside the truck and on its exterior to ensure proof of delivery.

“The dash cams are super helpful because there’s never a question of what was or wasn’t delivered,” Tarantino said. “If a customer is unsure about a shipment, I can simply pull up the footage to show exactly what we brought over.”

Once turkeys are delivered, it’s showtime. The week of Thanksgiving is a busy one for Bay Area shoppers, and grocers are ready to pull out all the stops. 

“The grocery stores make the experience seamless,” Tarantino said. “But it’s important to remember all the small steps along the way that help you enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey.”


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