Turkey prices rose this year, but shoppers looking for the Thanksgiving bird would probably never have guessed it.

Supermarkets this week were offering up deals so good, even a turkey farmer was tempted to buy.

The average price for whole, frozen turkeys hovered above $1.35 per pound for most of this year, according to the Labor Department. But most supermarkets rolled out last-minute promotions to get the birds out the door, with one in five supermarkets surveyed nationwide offering free birds with other purchases, according to federal statistics.

"It's cheaper for us to go and buy one at the store than to take one out of our barn and clean it," said Kent Meschke, a turkey farmer in Little Falls.

Meschke shipped the last of his turkeys for this year three days ago, and he said most of those went straight to stores for Thanksgiving.

At stores across the Midwest this week, prices for frozen turkey ranged from 25 cents a pound to $1.59, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cub stores have frozen turkey at 37 cents per pound, adding that it would meet any locally advertised price for a national brand frozen turkey. It lowered its price from 39 cents earlier this month.

Fresh turkeys from Jennie-O Turkey store (Hormel) or Honeysuckle White Premium Young Turkeys (Cargill) were at 99 cents per pound.

Even supermarkets not known for rock-bottom prices got into the act. Customers at Lunds and Byerly's got a $10 gift card for buying some types of store brand turkeys.

Take away the sales and promotions, though, and turkeys have become more expensive over the last two years.

Some of that was due to the high price of soybeans and corn, the turkey's primary diet, and some of it to fuel costs. But it's also a reflection of the industry's moves to tighten supply.

The high costs of turkey farming cut into profits -- or wiped them out completely -- and so the industry earlier this year cut back on production by 8 to 10 percent, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

Farmers right now earn 86 cents a pound on turkeys. "That's below break-even," Olson said.

Pork prices also are low

And yet competition from other foods means turkey farmers won't see relief soon. Olson said pork prices are so low that some people were buying ham instead of turkey.

This is usually the time of year that Minnesota's turkey farmers crow about their success. The state's farmers raise about 45 million birds annually, making it the biggest turkey state in the nation. The state's proximity to supplies of corn and soybeans makes it easier and cheaper to feed them here.

Farmers nationwide will raise about 250 million turkeys this year. Americans ate just less than half of the world's turkeys last year. This year, they're expected to eat 2.3 million tons of turkey.

But the season's early oversupply of turkeys, along with high production costs, left some farmers, like Meschke, wondering why they bothered.

"It wasn't worth raising the birds," he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329