Getting to know the UK's turkey farmers

by Lauren Fitchett12 December 2022

They dedicate their lives to providing families with their Christmas dinner centrepiece – we meet the UK’s turkey producers as they face the festive rush.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

While most of us spend July firing up the barbecue and eating al fresco, the country’s turkey farmers already have their minds on Christmas. By the balmy peak of summer, poults are growing and the very first orders are arriving from the most committed of cooks. From then, the Christmas countdown begins, with the end of November kicking off a festive blur of plucking, packing and preparing birds for delivery.

It’s busy work, but it’s a well-rehearsed routine for most turkey farmers, many of whom have not only dedicated decades to it, but also watched their parents do the same. There are few better examples of that heritage than Peele’s Norfolk Black Turkeys, where the family has, since 1880, bred and reared birds, at one point bringing the Norfolk Black – widely considered to be the oldest breed in the UK – back from the brink of extinction.

James Graham, fourth generation farmer at Peele's Norfolk Black Turkeys

Fourth generation farmer James Graham still carries on the family's decades-old traditions; all their poults are hatched on the farm, reared outside and matured slowly, while their feed is still made from home-grown wheat, barley and oats. He is, in fact, so keen on preserving the bird’s heritage that he has in the past spoken of a dream to create a museum dedicated to the Norfolk Black.

Few ingredients we cook will have been given so much attention, but, then, as meals go, Christmas dinner is a pretty important one. And though quality turkeys have long been sought after, farmers have seen the increasing demand for greater food provenance and high-welfare meat. 'It’s a speciality bird and people come to us for quality,' James agrees. 'They know the quality will be higher than what they’ll find in the supermarket.'

The Slade family at Rosamondford Turkey Farm

At Rosamondford Turkey Farm, in Exeter, the Slade family, who have owned the farm for more than sixty years, have also seen the taste for quality, with more customers now seeking them out directly, rather than going through farm shops. While the business began with just fifty turkeys, it now produces 4,000 bronze and 4,000 white birds a year (along with 12,000 chickens and 300 cows). They, too, are slow-grown and matured for a minimum of seven days, and fed from more than thirty acres of natural barley.

'More people are leaning towards buying a premium product,' explains Sam Slade, who runs the business with dad Steven, mum Sarah and sister Ellie, 'especially at Christmas-time. Coming to a family like us, you know it has been reared the right way, that no steroids and antibiotics have been used and that it’s all traditional. People like buying from a family farm and enjoying it with their own family.'

This year, producers know families will be balancing their desire for quality with tightening finances; a premium turkey, after all, commands a premium price. Kelly Bronze farmer Paul Kelly says he understands shoppers who opt for a budget choice, but points to the reasons that its birds are more costly: the uniqueness of the seventy-five-year-old breed, its slow and natural growth, its greater maturity and the traditional processes involved, including hand plucking and dry aging. The result? A bird which, he says, packs a punch when it comes to both flavour and texture (and, of course, makes a delicious gravy). 

Surviving and thriving

Farmers haven't been able to escape the turbulence of the last few years. While Covid had a mixed impact (at Peele’s, James says both 2020 and 2021 were sell-out years, with plenty of new custom, thanks in part to restrictions on socialising nudging more people towards medium-sized birds, such as Norfolk Blacks), farms have been hit by rising prices, supply chain issues and, most damagingly, bird flu.

Having swept across the country this year, avian flu has been devastating, wiping out some farmers' entire flocks. Across the UK, around half of the free-range poultry grown for Christmas 2022 is said to have died or been culled. The impacts vary widely from farm to farm – up in north-east Scotland, Craig Michie at Barra Bronzes says he has been unaffected, while at Peele’s and Rosamondford, they have avoided losses, but have had to keep usually free-range birds inside, while adding an extra layer of caution to their routines.

Paul Kelly, Kelly Bronze turkey farmer

At Kelly Bronze turkeys, the scale of their operation (not only do they sell almost 50,000 Christmas turkeys every year, but run numerous farms for other processors across the UK) made losses more difficult to avoid. Paul says while the Kelly Bronze side of the business was unaffected, they lost 81,000 birds in total across their other farms. 'It’s going to hurt, but we will be okay, we will be back,' he says. 'Unfortunately, there will be farmers out there who have lost everything and don’t have a business left.'

Thankfully, all the producers are expecting sales to be strong this Christmas. Peele’s first orders began to arrive in summer and signs are pointing towards a similar level to 2021. 'Some long-standing customers like to order in July,' James explains, 'but the majority come in September, when people’s minds turn to Christmas after the August bank holiday.'

After all, for many families, ordering the turkey is as much part of their festive traditions as tucking into it on Christmas Day. Paul says one customer, who has been buying their turkeys for forty-two years, recently got in touch to thank them for making Christmas so special. With that loyalty comes responsibility, he says – including arming customers with the information they need to cook a delicious bird. 'When people have one of our turkeys and cook it as we say, they have a fantastic experience – turkey has a bad reputation for being dry, but when it’s done right that’s not the case,' he adds.

Kelly Bronze turkeys
A year-round affair

December may be the height of the rush, but the Christmas groundwork is laid much earlier in the year. 'January and February can be quite busy because you are looking at the sales and marketing while everything is fresh in your mind,' Craig says. 'It's important to have an overview and it can be quite a busy couple of months – the start of March is usually a quieter time.'

Turkeys begin to, depending on the weather, hatch at the end of May, with first day-old poults arriving at Barra at the start of June, when they are kept under heat until they are allowed outside at the start of July. 'The Barra turkeys are slow-grown, hand-plucked and fed on cereals grown here,' Craig, who began turkey rearing in 2012 after leaving a career in town planning behind, says. With 3,400 birds sold each year at Barra, it’s no easy task.

December is certainly the culmination of the year’s work, and when processing and plucking begins. At Kelly Bronze, for example, half of its 50,000 birds (a figure which is divided into roughly three quarters Kelly Bronzes and one quarter regular bronzes) are sold via butchers, with the other half delivered to people's homes. This year, though, things have been a little different – as avian flu threatens flocks, government rules have allowed birds to be processed and frozen a few weeks earlier where necessary, shifting Kelly Bronze's timings and providing a rarely-seen moment of calm before the rush resumes closer to Christmas. 

'For the first time since I was about eight years old I had last weekend off,' Paul says at the start of December. 'It’s really weird. Normally at this time it’s feathers everywhere and we’re running around, working long hours – I like the buzz. Then all of a sudden you go from living on your nerves to waking up on Christmas morning with nothing to do.'

As December continues, the country's army of turkey farmers will all be knuckling down and making sure orders reach families. But as lunchtime on Christmas Eve arrives, when the turkeys are delivered and festive celebrations begin, they will finally be able to toast to a job well done and enjoy some well-earned rest. Until January, that is – when their thoughts will turn to Christmas once again.

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