The meat market just missed another holiday: March Madness.
The NCAA basketball tournament is the second of two annual festivals for chicken wings (the first is the Super Bowl). Wing prices and production run in predictable cycles each year ramping up for the NFL playoffs and championship game in the beginning of February, then again for college basketball's frenzied tournament a month and a half later.
American consumers have relatively predictable patterns when it comes to meat consumption. They buy more in the spring and summer, experts observe, so they can grill or entertain.
But with the country locked down because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the NCAA tournament canceled, a whole bunch of wings are lying around.
Wings, the most expensive part of the bird, haven't been this cheap since September 2011, according to Agriculture Department data. They sold for close to $2 per pound the weekend of the Super Bowl. Now, they sell for just over half of that: $1.09 per pound.
Poultry producers sold 1.24 million pounds of wings the week the tournament was scheduled to start. Heading into last weekend, when the Final Four would have played, they sold barely 433,000 pounds.
"The basketball didn't happen," said Erik Oosterwijk, president of Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore. "People are not going to restaurants and there's a lot of excess."
The supply of chicken is governed by biology, in addition to consumer demand. A hen lays an egg and the clock begins. There's only so much time before a chick emerges, then grows into a bird ready for harvest.
The whole process takes close to 10 weeks, Oosterwijk said. Processors can't let chickens grow much bigger, because then they are too large to harvest efficiently. Meanwhile, hens keep laying eggs.
Shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 came so quickly that consumers flocked to stores. Chicken sales rose 35%. But most consumers don't cook wings; they cook meatier cuts such as breasts, tenderloins and legs.