FOR TURKEY PRODUCERS, SLIGHT RISE IN PRICES IS NOTHING TO CROW ABOUT VIRUS, WEATHER REDUCE FLOCK

FOR TURKEY PRODUCERS, SLIGHT RISE IN PRICES IS NOTHING TO CROW ABOUT VIRUS, WEATHER REDUCE FLOCK

Be prepared to pay a little more for the centerpiece of this year's Thanksgiving dinner. The price of turkey is going up, the result of a hungry world market and a killer disease.

Turkey producers have increased production in recent weeks, but their late surge won't be enough to make up for a lackluster summer and fall."We can't run them through our barns fast enough," said Rogers Wilkins, who raises the table-bound birds in San Joaquin County. "Every foot of space in every barn has turkeys on it."

Consumers paid $1.08 per pound in September for whole, frozen turkeys, 4 cents more than last year's $1.04, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service said.

A spot check of California prices, though, revealed some bargains. The price of frozen birds ranged from $1.25 to 99 cents, the latter available at the Save Mart on Pelandale Avenue in Modesto.

Typically, fresh turkeys command a higher price on the wholesale market than frozen birds, said Tom Lee, a Foster Farms spokesman. Some retailers, though, accept the financial loss.

"Retailers will often use turkeys as a loss leader during the holidays to attract consumers," said Rebecca Ford, who analyzes supermarket pricing trends for the Los Angeles-based consulting firm of Smithfield and Rowe.

"They will come in to buy turkeys," said Ms. Ford, "and then purchase their cranberries, their stuffing, their potatoes, their wine all at the same time."

Americans ate 45 million turkeys last Thanksgiving and devoured another 22 million at Christmas - that's 67 million birds in 32 days - according to the National Turkey Federation.

Turkey producers can expect to see their net returns double this year from 1994, averaging nearly 5 cents per pound, the USDA report said. Last month, higher prices more than offset rising feed costs and pushed net returns to 10 cents per pound.

Turkey producers are responding with more birds. Weekly slaughter could increase 3 percent to 4 percent this month from a year earlier, and could jump another 2 percent in November. The trend should continue into next year, the research service said.

The increases follow a summer that saw southeastern producers plagued by ''spiking mortality," so-called because it causes a leap on the daily mortality chart hanging in every poultry house.

One study found 500,000 birds died from the virus in eastern North Carolina - the nation's top turkey-producing state - just last summer.

That was accompanied by a hotter-than-normal summer that pushed down production of turkey as well as other poultry, pork and dairy products.

The export market for U.S. turkeys is also gaining strength, the USDA said, particularly with consumers in Eastern Europe.