How A Butter Shortage Could Affect Your Thanksgiving Spread

From gravy and sides to desserts, there aren't many things on the Thanksgiving table that don't make use of some butter or fat, which is why we may not be too thrilled to find out that the country is experiencing a butter shortage that the coming few weeks is not going to turn around. According to The Wall Street Journal, butter makers are experiencing a combination of factors that aren't just preventing them from adding to existing butter inventories the shortage, the situation is keeping butter prices astronomical for the immediate future, too. Government data showed that butter cost $4.77 per unit, the most expensive it has been since 2017.

None of this should come as a surprise, particularly if we've been tracking inflation data, which points to the skyrocketing cost of butter. The government has repeatedly warned that butter prices have been rising over the last 12 months, and as a result, we're seeing prices as we've never seen them before. While inflation rose 13.5% over the last twelve months, The Wall Street Journal says butter prices rose faster than inflation did, by adding nearly 25% to its price from 2021.

The butter production struggle

CoBank's lead economist for dairy and specialty crops, Tanner Ehmke, flagged the problems butter was facing back in June when he released a report warning that consumers were being forced to consider butter substitutes from margarine and shortening to vegetable oil, as they faced not just higher butter prices, but inflation too, which was having a negative impact on their spending power. 

Ehmke tracks the butter shortage back to a number of factors. He writes, "U.S. dairy farmers and butter processors are struggling to increase production, thanks to high costs of feed, energy, heifers, and labor...  Some churns are slowing production due to tight U.S. milk supplies and short staffing at plants... (and) U.S. consumers have shifted their dairy product preferences, putting more demand pull on tight cream supplies."

Building up inventories in time for Thanksgiving won't work either, because as Ehmke points out, butter producers usually make the most around springtime — but inventory only grew by 16.8 million pounds during that period this year, instead of the usual 33.2 million during any other year. 

Consumers have been turning to butter substitutes

The high cost of dairy, in general, is already costing retailers like Walmart, who say they see their customers' shopping habits changing. "In proteins and dairy, we see some switching from brands to private brands. And we see switching from gallons of milk to half gallons of milk. We've got to do what we can in those categories to keep costs low," Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon said, per Dairy Reporter

The situation may not be ideal, but at least there are butter substitutes out there, which may keep consumers from complaining too much, at least for now. The Pioneer Woman lists no less than 14 different types of butter substitutes including mayonnaise, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, applesauce, margarine, and vegetable shortening. The products aren't perfect. As Ree Drummond's site points out, each substitute will have an impact on the product's flavor, but substitutes also mean that you don't have to do without your favorite Thanksgiving treats.