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Butterball’s Arkansas Plants Prepare for ThanksgivingLock Icon

4 min read

Butterball LLC of Garner, North Carolina, has set the table for its busiest time of year. 

Starting this week, for about a month and a half, employees will work seven days a week at the turkey producer’s two Arkansas whole bird processing facilities, in Ozark and Huntsville. 

“If you’re purchasing a Butterball whole bird, whether it’s fresh or frozen, for the holidays, anywhere in the continental United States of America, they are all coming out of northwest Arkansas,” said Bill Folk, vice president of operations. 

Butterball provides 1 in 3 of the turkeys at Thanksgiving feasts, and all of those birds are processed in Arkansas.

Early last year, the nation’s largest turkey products company spent $8.7 million to expand its two whole-bird plants, creating 160 jobs in Ozark and 200 jobs in Huntsville.  

Folk said Butterball also is considering spending $8 million to $15 million automating parts of the facilities. Automation would eliminate some difficult physical jobs such as deboning turkeys or lifting heavy items. Folk said it was too early to tell how many positions might be replaced. The automation could start next year or in 2024. 

Arkansas Turkey Production

Year

Total Pounds

No. of Turkeys

Value

2021 540,000,000 27,000,000 $443,340,000
2020 595,200,000 31,000,000 $421,997,000
2019 576,000,000 30,000,000 $333,504,000
2018 573,000,000 30,000,000 $292,230,000
2017 587,050,000 29,500,000 $379,234,000
2016 525,200,000 26,000,000 $433,815,000
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture annual farmer survey

When fully staffed, each facility has 700 to 800 workers. The Ozark plant is about 95% staffed and Huntsville is closer to 80%, because Madison County’s labor market is tighter. 

Live turkeys of various weights are brought to the plants, where they are harvested, eviscerated, graded and packed. The Ozark location produces prepackaged fresh and frozen turkeys.

The turkeys that don’t receive an A grade under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards go to Huntsville for deboning.

Huntsville’s plant, opened in 1974, was the company’s first in Arkansas, and it prepares packaged fresh, frozen and cooked whole turkeys. It also makes breasts and roasts and bone-in tray packs. 

“We also have a fully cooked plant there where we do smoked and baked whole turkeys, and smoked and baked bone-in breast,” Folk said. “We also do some smoked drumsticks for the food service industry.”

The two plants produce about 100,000 turkeys a day. 

Butterball has a third plant in Jonesboro with about 300 employees. It handles processed cooked items mainly for food services and delis.  

In 2020, Butterball opened a $50 million feed mill in Yellville, which replaced older facilities in Green Forest and Mountain Home. It also has a feed mill in Alix (Franklin County). 

Turkey Outlook

Turkeys raised in the United States are forecast to total 212 million this year, down about 2% from last year, said Bernt Nelson, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation who covers livestock.

He said the number has dropped from a high of about 245 million turkeys raised in 2017. 

“When we see a decrease in these numbers, typically it is related to profitability,” Nelson said.

In addition to higher expenses, turkey producers had to deal with the avian flu, which infected about 6 million turkeys this year. Some farmers decided to harvest their turkeys earlier and at a lower rate than risk them getting the avian flu. 

Going into Thanksgiving, turkey prices are at unprecedented levels. 

The national average price for a Grade A whole young hen between 8 and 16 pounds hit a record $1.72 per pound on Sept. 3, 20% higher than the same time last year.

The higher prices have helped the producers, but the producers’ expenses, such as feed and labor, have made it more difficult to operate profitably, Nelson said. “Farmers aren’t getting rich off of these higher prices.” 

Folk, who has worked in the turkey industry for 44 years, including 32 at Butterball, said the company learned a lot from the 2015 bird flu outbreak. It takes a number of biosecurity measures to limit any outbreaks, including strict sanitation of its trucks and controlls on traffic flow. 

Fewer than one percent of Butterball’s birds were affected by the recent outbreak. “Arkansas missed a lot of that,” Folk said. 

While Butterball’s whole turkey business is “fairly flat,” Folk said, the company is seeing some growth from its ground turkey products, as people turn to it as an alternative to ground beef. The private company doesn’t release revenue figures.

Orders for turkeys are “coming in very close to where we were last year, which was a strong year for us,” Folk said. “And we have plenty of birds around us this year. … So we feel really strongly about going into this season.”

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