Cost of Thanksgiving drops

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — The cost of putting on a dinner for 10 dropped 4% from last year as the result of lower prices for turkey, rolls, vegetables, cranberries and dairy products, the American Farm Bureau Federation found in its annual survey of traditional Thanksgiving food items. But commodity forecasts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicate prices may resume their uptrend next year.

The total cost of a classic home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner will be $42.91 this year, down $1.70 from $44.61 in 2008, which was the highest in the 24-year history of the A.F.B.F. survey. Last year’s record reflected high values for several commodities, including grains, oilseeds and dairy products, which still were coming off record highs set earlier in 2008 or late in 2007.

The Thanksgiving dinner price tracked closely with the A.F.B.F. quarterly market basket food survey, which declined for the fourth consecutive quarter in the July-September period of 2009. It was the first decline since 2004, when the cost to feed 10 at Thanksgiving was $35.68.

“Consistent with the retail food price declines seen throughout the year, consumers will pay just a bit less for their Thanksgiving feast this year,” said Jim Sartwelle, A.F.B.F. economist. “Consumers are benefiting at the grocery store from significantly lower energy prices and the effects of the economic slowdown.” At an average of $4.29 per person, the cost “is less than a typical ‘value meal’ at a fast-food outlet,” he said.

Although turkey is by far the largest component of the survey, lower dairy prices contributed most to the drop in the total cost. The A.F.B.F. survey showed the price of a gallon of whole milk was $2.86 this year, down 92c from 2008, and of a half pint of cream was $1.55, down 15c. The drop in price for the two dairy items made up 63% of the total $1.70 decline for the meal.

The price of a 16-lb turkey was tabbed at $18.65, down 44c from 2008; a dozen rolls at $2.08, down 12c; fresh cranberries (12 oz) at $2.41, down 5c; a 1-lb tray of carrots and celery at 72c, down 10c; and miscellaneous items at $2.50, down 19c. The price of pumpkin pie mix (30 oz) rose 11c, to $2.45; two pie shells rose 8c, to $2.34; and 14 oz of cube stuffing also rose 8c, to $2.65. The cost of 3 lbs of sweet potatoes at $3.12 and 1 lb of green peas at $1.58 was unchanged from 2008.

Retail food prices obviously reflect changes in raw commodity values, with a lag of a few months and with adjustments for energy and other outside costs. And based on marketing year production and price projections from the U.S.D.A., the downturn in the cost of Thanksgiving dinner may be short lived.

In its Nov. 10 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, the U.S.D.A. forecast higher prices for milk and wheat and about steady prices for turkey compared with

October projections and with year-earlier values.

The average price for all grades of milk in 2010 was projected to fall in a range of $16.05@16.95 per cwt, up $1.35 from the October projection and from $12.60@12.70 forecast for this year, but well below $18.29 in 2008 and $19.13 in 2007.

“Improving global demand and concerns about world supplies of dairy products have pushed international dairy prices higher and are expected to result in higher U.S. dairy exports

during the remainder of this year and into 2010,” the U.S.D.A. said. After hitting 190 billion lbs in 2008, U.S. milk production was forecast to fall to 189.1 billion lbs this year and to 187.7 billion lbs in 2010 as dairy farmers trimmed herds due to significant losses. But production estimates for both this year and next were raised slightly in November from October as “improved milk prices are expected to more than outweigh higher feed costs and slow the pace of liquidation,” the U.S.D.A. said.

Average 2009-10 (June-May) wheat prices were projected to fall in a range of $4.65@5.05 a bu, up 10c on the low end of the range from October as “recent gains in futures prices have supported farm gate prices,” the U.S.D.A. said. Despite large wheat supplies, futures prices through the middle of last week were up about 15% from Oct. 30 due mainly to speculative fund buying. Still, expected prices were down from a record high $6.78 in 2008-09 and from $6.48 in 2007-08.

Turkey prices paid to growers in 2010 were forecast to average 77@83c a lb, unchanged from the October forecast and compared with 79.1c in 2009 and 87.5c last year. Turkey production in 2009 was forecast at 5,697 million lbs, down 9% from 2008, with 2010 outturn forecast at 5,725 million lbs, up slightly from this year. November projections for both this year and next were lowered from October as hatchery data pointed to a slower-than-expected expansion, the U.S.D.A. said.

Even at higher prices this year, pumpkin pie mix could be hard to find because excessively wet conditions in Illinois, where about 80% of the nation’s pie pumpkins are grown, resulted in a smaller-than-expected harvest.

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