DiPaola turkeys

Turkeys at DiPaola Turkey Farm in Hamilton. (Facebook photo.)

For me, as a writer, every story begins with a question. And this story evolved from the question: What did Thanksgiving look like during the 1918 pandemic?

Remember, the United States was just emerging from World War I. In fact, the end of the war came just nine months after the outbreak of what was called the Spanish flu. And according to a story in the Washington Post, President Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the end of the war. And we know that didn’t happen on Zoom!

And let’s stop right here and talk about how the Spanish flu got its name since the outbreak didn’t start in Spain; it was initially reported in the Spanish newspapers. Essentially, it’s another moment where political leaders were controlling the release of information.

Here’s an explanation from a 2008 research paper on the subject:

“Some authors state that, late in the spring of 1918, the Spanish wire news service Agencia Fabra sent cables to Reuters news service headquarters in London saying, “A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported.” Since its beginning, the epidemic has been called the Spanish flu (or the “Spanish Lady”), probably because of the misinformation surrounding the news about the origin of the epidemic.

It is usually accepted that, because Spain was a neutral country in World War I, freedom of the press in Spain was greater than that in the allied countries and in Germany. The US and European press, likely for political reasons, did not acknowledge or transmit timely and accurate news about the high number of casualties among their military and civilian population that were attributable to the ongoing influenza epidemic. Nearly 90 years later, although virologists and epidemiologists worldwide agree that the influenza virus did not originate in Spain, the name remains: the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic will always be known as the Spanish flu.”

So around Thanksgiving 1918, the pandemic was exploding, the war was ending and turkey was in limited supply. The warnings started early as per a small story in the July 22, 1918 edition of the Trenton Times, which reported that the U.S. Food Administration “Pleads to Spare Broiler Turkeys.”

At the time, the broiler turkey was a bird that had grown about 25%. The story noted that while a broiler was “succulent and inviting,” the Food Administration was encouraging farmers to let turkeys fully grow because of a “falling meat supply.”

Statistics at the time noted there were 5 million farms in the U.S. But those farms only generated 6 million turkeys. In 1918, Texas was the largest turkey producer, followed by Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Indiana.

According to a Nov. 21, 1918 story from the Cranbury Press, Rhode Island only produced 5,000 turkeys, but theirs were considered the finest for some unwritten reason, and would usually “bring prices vastly in excess of those from other parts of the country.”

Today, according to eatturkey.org, there are fewer farms, but increased turkey production. In 2020, 224 million turkeys were raised on about 2,500 farms across the United States. Today’s top turkey producing states include: Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa and California.

Warnings about the availability of fresh turkey, not frozen, have started this year too.

Art DiPaola, who owns and operates DiPaola Turkey Farm on Edinburgh Road in Hamilton, said he has the same number of turkeys to sell this year, as he did last year. And that number is upwards of 8,000 turkeys.

What’s different this year, he said, was the cost of grain.

“The cost of growing the turkey is up 32% because of grain prices.” DiPaola said during a phone interview. “The prices are significantly higher,” he noted, “because of the catastrophic wind damage in the midwest that wiped out the corn and soybean crops.”

DiPaola said his long-time relationship with his grain supplier meant he was able to feed his poulets (baby turkeys). And, despite the added costs, customers will only see a 10 cent increase in the per-pound cost from last year. But DiPaola said his business “is making less money on a pound of turkey this year as opposed to last year when grain prices were not as steep.” And DiPaola said he will have some 16-pound turkeys.

For DiPaola, labor was not a problem. “I am very fortunate here,” said DiPaola. “I have a wonderful crew of people. And, when it comes to this time of year, there are friends who come in and do what needs to get done.”

DiPaola said small farmers like him have a stable customer base. It’s the large-scale operations that will struggle to get turkeys on the table this year.

“It’s the very large producers who have had a problem with labor,” DiPaola said. That labor shortage meant the larger producers couldn’t put out the normal amount of turkeys. The large producers, said DiPaola, usually run their operations 24 hours a day, processing and freezing about 80,000 to 90,000 turkeys during that time period. Without enough labor, DiPaola said, large companies were forced to scale back operations significantly.

* * *

Those wanting fresh turkey, may still have a chance in early November. Here’s a quick look at local options, and one mail-order option.

DiPaola Turkey Farm (Hamilton). Phone: (609) 287-9311.

The patriarch of the DiPaola family, Art, Sr., began his turkey farm in 1948. Located on 891 Edinburg Road. Art DiPaola Jr. now oversees the operations on this family farm.

People can begin to place phone orders for their turkeys beginning Monday, Nov. 1, and orders can be placed by phone every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. People can also order through the farm’s website.

Lee Turkey Farm (East Windsor). Phone: (609) 448-0629.

The Lee Turkey Farm, located at 201 Hickory Farm Rd, was established in 1868; but, raising and selling turkeys from the farm began in 1941. According to the farm’s website, Lee’s raises 3,000 turkeys each year, and sells those turkeys from their farm stand.

Double Brook Farm/Brick Farm Market (Hopewell). Phone: (609) 466-6500

When landing on the market’s home page, a message pops up telling buyers, “If last year is any indication, we strongly suggest you order well in advance since a lot of our inventory tends to sell out FAST!”

Griggstown Farm (Franklin Township).

Jane and George Rude established Griggstown Farm in Somerset County 40 years ago. Turkeys can be ordered online for pickup at the farm, located at 484 Bunker Hill Rd. in Princeton, from November 20 to 24. People can order turkeys along with sides.

Griggstown Farm also has a presence at the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market, located off Alexander Road in Princeton Junction and open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Thanksgiving.

D’Artagnan. Phone: (800) 327-8246.

Established in 1985, and located in Union, D’Artagnan sources a variety of meats from small farmers, including organic and pasture-fed wild turkey. People can order online or by phone.

The company notes consumers should not only plan ahead because of supply, but also because shipping is taking longer these days.

* * *

If you can help others this Thanksgiving, in Hamilton, donations will be accepted at the John O. Wilson Center until Nov. 12. The Center will be helping to feed 250 families in Hamilton Township.

The Wilson Center is requesting the following items: canned vegetables (carrots, peas); canned yams and sweet potatoes; boxed stuffing mix; boxed mashed potatoes; gravy, canned or jarred; canned cranberry sauce; muffin mixes; canned or boxed turkey and chicken broth.

Items can be dropped off at the John O. Wilson Center, located at 169 Wilfred Ave., Hamilton, NJ 08610, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Phone: (609) 393-6480.

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