Carving a niche

Features Posted 04/12/18
Christmas is a time for family and tradition and for the Wreathalls at Priory Farm, just outside Appledore in Kent, there is nothing more traditional than rearing premium turkeys for families to enjoy on the big day.

“If you are a Wreathall, you do turkeys,” said Andrew Wreathall, who owns and manages Appledore Turkeys on the Romney Marsh with his brother Clive. “Our grandfather, Frank Wreathall, started it all during the second world war when he was farming in Suffolk and while the family has spread out into Essex and Kent, over the generations we have all continued the tradition.”

After moving to the Romney Marsh in 1979, Andrew and Clive were producing around two to three thousand birds per year until the late-1990s when increasing pressure and regulations placed on butchers saw the business undergo a drastic transformation.

“As things started to change in the butchery sector we were receiving more requests to supply oven-ready birds,” said Andrew. “We decided to give it a go and because other farmers weren’t geared up for the processing side we were able to expand very quickly. Now we sell in the region of 15,000 bronze and 5,000 white turkeys per year.”

Looking back, Andrew admits that in the first year “it was difficult to cope with the stress of it all”, but after investing in a dedicated processing building the Wreathalls were able to optimise efficiency. Today getting the birds oven-ready is a well-rehearsed, refined process and Andrew believes that well trained staff, focusing on one product allows the farm to turn out the very best turkeys, not only in taste but also in presentation and packaging too.

“Doing everything in-house also provides a consistent product and because 95% of our workers come back each year they know exactly what to do and what we expect the birds to look like,” said Andrew. “We have been very lucky with retaining good labour. Possibly because it is a winter job, but also because we have a system where they can earn a lot of money.”

Festive flock life

For Andrew and Clive Wreathall, preparations for the festive season are usually underway from the beginning of June, as the first day-old poults are delivered to the farm from hatcheries in the Wirral and Kelly Turkeys in Essex.

After being separated by breed and sex, the poults spend the first four weeks of their life in a brooding shed, where the temperature is steadily reduced from 30°C to ambient conditions. Birds are then moved to the larger sheds where they are kept in for a further four weeks before being allowed to roam free range around paddocks and woodland during the daytime.

“The turkeys don’t really require a lot of management,” said Andrew. “They are simply given straw a few times per week, they have access to automatic feeders and plenty of water and we look round them a few times a day. The difficult part of the turkey business is getting them plucked, processed and out to the customer.”

Alongside the birds, the Wreathall family farm 3,250 acres of arable, including wheat, barley, oilseed rape and peas. When it comes to feed, Andrew explains that the two branches of the business are kept very separate because “trying to do contra deals with the feed mills doesn’t work” and the end goal is always to buy turkey feed as cheap as possible while selling wheat for as much as possible.

With the exception of a few thanksgiving orders, Andrew is currently gearing up for the big slaughter which usually commences in the last week of November. By Christmas Eve the farm is completely empty and eerily quiet. Having a six month sterile period not only allows Andrew and Clive to have a short down time before focusing efforts on the arable side of the business, but not having a multi-age site also drastically reduces the risk of diseases spreading from old to new birds.

When the time comes, birds are walked across to a holding pen before entering the slaughter house. There are no live animal movements and the lack of transport eradicates stress among the flock. After being slaughtered and rough plucked, turkeys are then transferred to the plucking room where over 100 people will finish them off. After passing through the quality control tables, the plucked birds are hung according to weight bands and once the latent heat has been removed they are then sent to the chilled maturation room.

“We count the plucked birds so everyone knows how they are doing compared to other days,” said Andrew. “The team has plucked up to 3,000 in a day before, but on average we do about 2,000 per day. We also have the ability to show pluck turkeys because a lot of butchers still like to present them in this traditional way.”

Premium product

One of the biggest differences between Appledore’s farm fresh, traditional Christmas turkeys and those found on the supermarket shelves is the way the birds have been plucked.

“To keep costs down and get through the high volumes, supermarkets have to wet pluck the birds,” said Andrew. “The trouble with wet plucking is that you are significantly reducing the shelf life because where they are immersed in water as the feathers come out the water goes into the pores. They are then rinsed in chlorine and gas flushed in a bag to preserve them.”

By dry, hand plucking the turkeys at Priory Farm, the Wreathalls can then hang the finished bird in the maturation room for a minimum of ten days and up to a maximum of one month; a process which allows for improved flavour.

“We provide our customers with a better eating experience but that of course takes time and effort,” said Andrew. “We employ 140 people over 10 days to pluck 20,000 birds. Six people can pluck 1,000 in an hour with a wet plucking system. It is cheap, but the product suffers at the end because of it.”

By comparison to the supermarkets, Appledore Turkeys are certainly not cheap, with birds retailing somewhere between £60 and £100, depending on weight. Unlike the supermarkets, who rear big breeds and slaughter them at desired weights, usually around 12 to 14 weeks of age, the weight of the Wreathall’s birds is determined by the genetic weight of the different breeds at 20 to 26 weeks old.

“We rear specific breeds according to what our customers have historically ordered,” said Andrew. “Around 90% are hens, because our customers tend to want smaller four, five and six kilogram turkeys. By letting them reach their maximum genetic weight, we are rearing a bird which is more mature in its confirmation and has a better meat yield. The supermarket ones, which are killed young when they hit a target weight, tend to be mostly carcass.”

Proudly providing customers with better birds, Andrew is consistently receiving feedback from customers who, having been put off by cheaply processed turkeys, are “taken aback at how turkey should taste” and how moist these birds can be if they have been allowed to grow naturally, with plenty of fat on them.

“We have been winning Great Taste Awards for the past six years,” said Andrew. “Not everyone can afford to buy our turkeys, but those who do, do so because they know that we are producing the Rolls Royce of turkeys and they know they will be putting a quality eating experience on their table on Christmas day.”

Christmas markets Rearing traditional, premium turkeys is certainly a niche market driven by people’s willingness to push the boat out to create an incredible meal for the entire family on one of the most celebrated days of the year.

“People are willing to spend more because it’s Christmas,” said Andrew. “It is the one day of the year where the whole family will sit down together for a meal and because this rarely happens in modern society people are happy to splash out and go that extra mile for a really good centrepiece.”

While Andrew explains that the supermarkets are trying to muscle in on this lucrative market, by focusing on the buzz words such as free range, local, and traditional, it is very difficult for them to do so. As discussed above, to rear and process a large volume of birds to the same standards as Appledore Turkeys is expensive and there is only a finite number of people in the UK who can afford to spend over £50 on a bird.

With that in mind, Andrew also appreciates that there is only a market for his turkeys at Christmas time.

“My cousin produces turkey through the year, but their business is focused at supplying the catering market by turning out 20kg plus birds very quickly,” said Andrew. “Everything is driven by price and we are lucky to be selling a premium product, into a premium market at a premium time of year.”

While Appledore Turkeys does receive around 400 farm-gate sales per year, with a few families having turned the journey from London into an annual tradition, the vast majority of birds are sold to local farm shops, butchers and high-end food retailers, who want to provide their customers with something special.

“The outlets we work with also struggle to compete with the supermarkets on price, so instead of trying they want to stock the very best and that is what we are about,” said Andrew. “Currently we supply around 135 outlets, not just locally but also across to the New Forrest and up to Nottinghamshire. We use a chilled distributor called Nagel Langdons and essentially, once it’s in a box and on a lorry it doesn’t matter whether it goes down the road or 100 miles away.”

Having gained a reputation locally, Appledore Turkeys now also supply a lot of companies, who consider the high-quality turkeys to be the ideal sign of appreciation for hard-working employees and valued customers.

Engaging with customers

Thought of cooking on Christmas day can be, for many, daunting enough, never mind when you have spent a considerable sum on a turkey which has been proudly reared over six-months.

To ensure that customers have a happy, stress-free Christmas, Andrew’s involvement in the turkeys doesn’t cease on the day they leave the farm and the Wreathall family has passionately gone above and beyond to make sure that consumers are armed with essential literature and advice to be able to serve their turkey at its best.

“As well as booklet with cooking instructions, all our turkeys now come with pop up timers which will show when the turkey has reached the right heat,” said Andrew. “There is also a ‘frequently asked questions’ section and storage instructions which people find very useful. We try to help customers as much as we can, not just because they have paid an awful lot of money and the pressure to get it right is enormous, but because we want them to get the very best out of the turkeys we have put so much effort into producing.”

Recipe cards have also been created to provide inspiration for those with left-overs. While many shy away from purchasing the whole bird to avoid left-over meat, there is an industry wide focus on trying to educate people on how uneconomical turkey crowns are.

“The whole bird is better value for money and it even cooks better because of the cavity,” said Andrew. “The problem is that people think they don’t like the brown meat, which is sacrilegious really because it is the tastiest part.”

Following market demands, crowns now make up about 10% of sales and Appledore Turkeys is also moving into other oven-ready cuts such as saddles, butterflies, and breasts.

“It is the nature of the market and we have to adapt to meet demand, but the problem is that we are crowning all these good birds and don’t know what to do with the back ends,” said Andrew. “It is time consuming and unviable for the butchers to process so we end up selling most of it to dog food companies. Ironically too, the shops who do take it will use it for turkey pies. Their customers tell them that the meat is wonderful, yet they’re not willing to have it on their Christmas table.”

As well as trying to engage with customers as much as possible, the Wreathalls also invite the butchers, farm shops and independent food retailers they work with to the farm so that they can see where and how the birds are raised.

“We have a day where we try and get our trade customers to come down for a tour,” said Andrew. “We will take photographs of them in amongst the turkeys so they can put it up in their shops and they can tell their customers that they know exactly where these turkeys are coming from. When customers are paying big money that credibility and traceability is so important.”

For the first time, in June 2018, Priory Farm also opened its gates to the general public as part of LEAF’s Open Farm Sunday scheme.

“It was great because we had over 300 people from all walks of life,” said Andrew. “The chicks had been delivered just a few days before and we let the children pick them up. It was absolutely brilliant for me personally to see.”

It is clear that turkeys are at the very heart of the Wreathall’s family farm and while fellow turkey producer Paul Kelly was talking about the negative impact of Brexit on his business in the last edition of South East Farmer, Andrew is more optimistic about the future.

“Our customers are incredibly loyal and there are butchers who we have been working with for over 30 years,” said Andrew. “As long as we keep doing the job properly we have our market. We just have to look after it and make sure that every one of our customers enjoys a succulent, flavoursome and traditional turkey on Christmas day.”

Photos: Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic


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