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Why a locally-reared turkey costs £90 [WFJ #43]
Or why a supermarket one costs £16
If you were living in Somerset 60 years ago, you’d be very unlikely to find “local” and “turkey” in the same sentence.
Not long after European explorers domesticated turkeys from North America in the 1500s (it’s thought a Yorkshireman was the first to bring them to English shores, Bristol specifically, in 1526), King Henry VIII introduced them to his banqueting tables as a more palateable alternative to peacock.
In the time since, turkey has mostly been a Norfolk thing – only in the 1960s and 70s did Somerset farmers begin to produce their own on any sort of scale, to help keep domestic Christmas dinner tables loaded with enormous bronzed blobs of protein.
Turkey though, is still more of a US staple. Which, given its origins, and their thanksgiving tendencies, is hardly surprising. What is perhaps surprising is the other thing we’ve borrowed from across the Atlantic – the so-called ‘mega farm’, among other factory farm practices. Globally, more than 90% of turkeys are reared in intensive conditions. That means indoors with no access to natural light or forage, and little to no environmental enrichment to allow them to go about what they, the naturally inquisitive beings they are, are inclined to do. It keeps supermarket prices cheap – like less than £3 a kilo cheap – but at the cost of welfare and, ultimately, flavour.
Among the worst cases in the States and Europe, 25,000 turkeys are kept in single sheds. Not much room is left for them to move – let alone exercise – and as a result, they stress and get aggressive. So, to limit potential injuries, hatcheries have taken to de-beaking, de-snooding (the snood being the fleshy bit on the head of a male turkey), and de-toeing turkeys shortly after they hatch.
If you’d rather your turkey wasn’t thrice mutilated, you’d have better luck going through a butcher you trust, or straight from the source. Rob Lunnon at Lower Haydon Farm just outside Wells, and suppliers to H.E. Williams butchers among others, has sold turkeys in the area for the best part of 40 years. While his flock of 700 are debeaked as chicks (from Hockenhull hatchery in Lincolnshire), his methods likely fall into the bracket of what Compassion In World Farming calls a ‘higher welfare indoor system’.
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“They've got lots of space, on fresh straw once a week,” Rob tells The WFJ. “We want to keep them clean and busy – if you've got a dirty and unhappy turkey, you're not going to get on very well killing it and picking it and having a clean carcass.”
Rob says that, while he doesn't farm to an organic standard, what he produces is “without a doubt” on similar lines. From a quality perspective, that’s hard to say for sure. From a welfare perspective, the biggest difference is Rob’s turkeys are fed on a concentrated meal of wheat and vegetable protein – which is not certified organic – and aren’t reared in outdoor ranges, as is organic’s par for the course. “I would still argue [what I do] delivers a better product, but then I'm biased aren't I?”
As for why Rob doesn't rear his birds outside, “Lots of free-range farms I know of have to go out and physically hunt [their hens],” he says, “because chickens do not like going out. And you've got natural predation from foxes and other birds.”
Funnily enough, Naomi Kimber, who helps out at Kimbers’ – a farm and farm shop between Bruton and Wincanton selling free-range turkeys direct and into butchers like Penleigh – agrees with Rob. “Quite often you open the doors in the morning and a lot of them don't bother going out. They stay where it's warm, where the food is. It's the same with chickens. I used to be an organic inspector, and you'd see in a house with 1,000 birds, there'd be 50 outside.”
Since a turkey’s natural habitat is hardwood and mixed conifer forests, where they can forage on nuts, fruit, and insects, and seek cover from predators, open pasture isn’t really their ideal environment.
In any case, with the current bird flu outbreak – the worst the UK’s ever seen, no less – as of November 7th no poultry farm is allowed to let its birds outside, in an effort to quarantine the virus. The term ‘free-range’ isn’t quite redundant, however, as Naomi explains. “We keep them indoors until they’re big enough and old enough to not be preyed upon by aerial predators. After five or six weeks, we let them out in the middle of July. So they were out until the 7th of November.” Poultry must be kept outdoors at least half their life for them to be called ‘free-range’. “So from the legal point of view,” Naomi says, “we're more than covered.”
Kimbers’ turkeys – all 1,400 of them – are turned out every morning, fed by hand everyday, hand-plucked and hung for ten days after slaughter to help remove moisture thereby intensifying their flavour. This all adds to the labour and the cost of production – particularly things like hanging, what with refrigeration bills on their upward trajectory. Kimbers’ cheapest starts at £9.35 a kilo, and goes up to £15.65 for some bronze turkeys, meaning you can expect to spend between £70 and £190 for a Kimbers’ centrepiece to your Christmas day spread.
Rob’s turkeys, produced under different standards of course, are selling for £10 per kilogram. Which is still up to three times what you’d pay for one in Lidl. “What the supermarkets are delivering is totally different to what local farms can produce, without a doubt,” says Rob. “My birds move 20 foot to the culling room, whereas for a supermarket, they're probably caught and transported on a lorry, and held overnight in a not nice environment, and they're hung up and put on a killing line, which if you witnessed I guarantee you won't ever want to eat poultry again. I've been to a larger chicken processor and, oh my god – I don't like buying supermarket chicken or poultry for those reasons.”
And that’s ultimately it. Whether free-range or not, some local farms are trying to provide a festive food that omits much of what industrial production entails, while contributing to the local economy and making it as inexpensive as possible. They are often, as Naomi says, “All in this together against the supermarkets.”