Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Economist Chews Over Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving preparations arrive, I naturally find my thoughts veering to the evolution of demand for turkey, technological change in turkey production, market concentration in the turkey industry, and price indexes for a classic Thanksgiving dinner. Not that there's anything wrong with that. [Note: This is an updated and amended version of a post that was first published on Thanksgiving Day 2011.]

The last time the U.S. Department of Agriculture did a detailed "Overview of the U.S. Turkey Industry" appears to be back in 2007, although an update was published in April 2014 . Some themes about the turkey market waddle out from those reports on both the demand and supply sides.

On the demand side, the quantity of turkey per person consumed rose dramatically from the mid-1970s up to about 1990, but since then has declined somewhat. The figure below is from the website run by the National Turkey Federation. Apparently, the Classic Thanksgiving Dinner is becoming slightly less widespread.

On the production side, the National Turkey Federation explains: "Turkey companies are vertically integrated, meaning they control or contract for all phases of production and processing - from breeding through delivery to retail." However, production of turkeys has shifted substantially, away from a model in which turkeys were hatched and raised all in one place, and toward a model in which the steps of turkey production have become separated and specialized--with some of these steps happening at much larger scale. The result has been an efficiency gain in the production of turkeys. Here is some commentary from the 2007 USDA report, with references to charts omitted for readability:

"In 1975, there were 180 turkey hatcheries in the United States compared with 55 operations in 2007, or 31 percent of the 1975 hatcheries. Incubator capacity in 1975 was 41.9 million eggs, compared with 38.7 million eggs in 2007. Hatchery intensity increased from an average 33 thousand egg capacity per hatchery in 1975 to 704 thousand egg capacity per hatchery in 2007.
Some decades ago, turkeys were historically hatched and raised on the same operation and either slaughtered on or close to where they were raised. Historically, operations owned the parent stock of the turkeys they raised while supplying their own eggs. The increase in technology and mastery of turkey breeding has led to highly specialized operations. Each production process of the turkey industry is now mainly represented by various specialized operations.
Eggs are produced at laying facilities, some of which have had the same genetic turkey breed for more than a century. Eggs are immediately shipped to hatcheries and set in incubators. Once the poults are hatched, they are then typically shipped to a brooder barn. As poults mature, they are moved to growout facilities until they reach slaughter weight. Some operations use the same building for the entire growout process of turkeys. Once the turkeys reach slaughter weight, they are shipped to slaughter facilities and processed for meat products or sold as whole birds.
Turkeys have been carefully bred to become the efficient meat producers they are today. In 1986, a turkey weighed an average of 20.0 pounds. This average has increased to 28.2 pounds per bird in 2006. The increase in bird weight reflects an efficiency gain for growers of about 41 percent."
The 2014 report points out that the capacity of eggs per hatchery has continued to rise (again, references to charts omitted):
For several decades, the number of turkey hatcheries has declined steadily. During the last six years, however, this decrease began to slow down. As of 2013, there are 54 turkey hatcheries in the United States, down from 58 in 2008, but up from the historical low of 49 reached in 2012. The total capacity of these facilities remained steady during this period at approximately 39.4 million eggs. The average capacity per hatchery reached a record high in 2012. During 2013, average capacity per hatchery was 730 thousand (data records are available from 1965 to present).

U.S. agriculture is full of examples of remarkable increases in yields over a few decades, but they always drop my jaw. I tend to think of a "turkey" as a product that doesn't have a lot of opportunity for technological development, but clearly I'm wrong. Here's a graph showing the rise in size of turkeys over time from the 2007 report.

The production of turkey remains an industry that is not very concentrated, with three relatively large producers and then more than a dozen mid-sized producers. Here's a list of top turkey producers in 2014 from the National Turkey Federation:

In the last couple of years, the US turkey industry has been affected by an outbreak of HPAI
 (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza). In the November 17, 2015 issue of the "Livestock, Dairy, andPoultry Outlook" from the US Department of Agriculture, Kenneth Mathews and Mildred Haley offer some details.
U.S. turkey meat production in third-quarter 2015 was 1.35 billion pounds, down 9 percent from a year earlier. This continued the downward path for turkey production in 2015 ... The third-quarter decline was due to both a lower number of turkeys slaughtered and a drop in their average live weight at slaughter. The slaughter number fell to 57.5 million, 6 percent lower than a year earlier, while the average live weight at slaughter declined to 29.3 pounds, a drop of 3 percent from the previous year. Since April the average live weight at slaughter has been lower than the previous year, for a period of 6 consecutive months—reflecting the impact of the HPAI outbreak, which caused processors to slaughter birds somewhat earlier than they normally would in order to maintain supply levels. ... Lower turkey meat production during third-quarter 2015 helped to lower overall turkey stocks, which, in turn, put upward pressure on whole bird prices. ... Turkey meat production in 2016 is forecast at 6 billion pounds, which would be an increase of 8 percent from the HPAI-reduced production of the previous year; much of the increase will come in the second half of the year. ... Prices for whole frozen hen turkeys at the wholesale level averaged $1.36 per pound in October, up from $1.16 per pound the previous year (17 percent). ... The quarterly price for frozen whole hens in 2016 is forecast higher through the first half of the year, but then to average below year-earlier levels in the second half, as higher production mitigates traditional seasonal price increases.

For some reason, this entire post is reminding me of the old line that if you want to have free-flowing and cordial conversation at dinner party, never seat two economists beside each other. Did I mention that I make an excellent chestnut stuffing?

Anyway, the starting point for measuring inflation is to define a relevant "basket" or group of goods, and then to track how the price of this basket of goods changes over time. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the Consumer Price Index, the basket of goods is defined as what a typical U.S. household buys. But one can also define a more specific basket of goods if desired, and since 1986, the American Farm Bureau Federation has been using more than 100 shoppers in states across the country to estimate the cost of purchasing a Thanksgiving dinner. The basket of goods for their Classic Thanksgiving Dinner Price Index looks like this:

The cost of buying the Classic Thanksgiving Dinner rose by a  bit less than 1% in 2015, compared with 2014. The top line of the graph that follows shows the nominal price of purchasing the basket of goods for the Classic Thanksgiving Dinner. The lower line on the graph shows the price of the Classic Thanksgiving Dinner adjusted for the overall inflation rate in the economy. The line is relatively flat, especially since 1990 or so, which means that inflation in the Classic Thanksgiving Dinner has actually been a pretty good measure of the overall inflation rate.

Thanksgiving is a distinctively American holiday, and it's my favorite. Good food, good company, no presents--and all these good topics for conversation. What's not to like?