Will grew up on the family farm in Vines Cross, where his father started producing turkeys year round, and for the seasonal market in the 1950’s, and where his eldest brother now produces turkeys too.
After spending the first 10 years of his working life on the family farm, Will moved into construction for about 15 years and then in 2005 an opportunity arose to help run a 160 acre Organic farm in Mayfield – producing organic beef, pork, eggs, chickens and turkeys.
Then in 2011 Will started his own venture – Sheffield Farms, buying breeding cattle, pigs and equipment and continued to run the enterprise from Clayton Farm.
Now in his eighth year of running his own business – he has grown his Turkey rearing enterprise from 500 to 1,200. The majority of his customers are local butchers and farm shops – accounting for about 90% of his business.
Another 10% are sold direct from the farm gate to customers, many of whom place their orders on his website.
Will says: “These days you cannot produce stuff in the hope you are going to sell it – as soon as you start selling wholesale you’ll lose money.”
Thankfully Will has built up a loyal base of customers. Nevertheless he still says it’s a bit of a punt estimating how many turkey poults to order as there’s no guarantee that customers will re-order from him.
“The hatcheries will start contacting me in February wanting my poult order – which determines how many turkeys I will have for Christmas. Touch wood most of my customers are very loyal and some have been expanding recently too.”
Organic, free range and barn reared production systems
I query what type of turkey system he runs: “I do around 150 organic birds and the rest will be free range and barn reared,” says Will.
He sources from two hatcheries – Holly Berry hatcheries in Lincoln and Kelly’s in Essex and says: “I tend to go for a more traditional shaped bird that does well under our production system.”
They arrive in two batches, this year it was the last week of May and middle of June, going under heat – a gas brooder for four weeks after which they are hardened off and are given more and more space as and when needed.
On poult mortality Will explains: “You get 2% free for losses. It obviously varies – I had one batch that lost another 2% and another batch which lost 10%”
On average he tries to keep losses to around 5% for brooding and says “realistically by the time you come to slaughter them they average around 6-7% mortality”.
Cost per poult is around £5. Feed costs range quite a bit – a conventional starter is around £450 per tonne and the finisher ration is around £280 per tonne.
For organic, it’s £700 per tonne for the starter and the finisher ration is around £450 – quite a marked difference.
I ask Will if the higher input costs are offset by the organic premium he receives for the 150 organic turkeys. Tellingly he replies: “You make more money out of the conventional turkeys.”
“If you cost everything accurately and the NFU have costings on their website – it works out around £35 per bird – that’s to get it from poult to oven ready – that’s their official figure”. Will expects to be able to do them for a bit less t
All the birds are checked, fed and bedded up first thing in the day. “They are very inquisitive birds – you’ve got to keep them occupied and fresh straw every day is something that keeps them interested.”
The free range and organic birds are then let out once their double fenced pen has been inspected and is fully secure – they will be left for the rest of the day until they are checked again at the end of the day and then rounded up before nightfall.
Turkeys: 1,200, reared from poults to oven ready.
Previously: Reared native cattle and pigs, selling to butchers, farm shops and restaurants with a turnover of £250,000.
Land: Owns land and buildings at Stream Farm, Chiddingly & annually rents Clayton Farm, on Newick lane, Mayfield.
Labour: Will, and 1 part timer plus seasonal labour to help with processing and packing of turkeys.
Turkey farming is not without it’s challenges: “The biggest challenge every year is the brooding stage – it’s when they are most susceptible to disease and not getting going.”
The other main threat is predators. “Initially the turkeys will be in a pen with Heras fencing security panels with a lid to stop birds coming down. They then need more space so you can’t put a lid on the pen”. It’s at this stage that they’ve had rooks, crows, magpies and even mink kill their turkeys, though Will uses brightly coloured string and a shotgun to deter them.
The majority of their turkeys are sold via local butchers and farm shops like Eggs to Apples in Hurst Green, he offers a good discount and order numbers have steadily increased over the years. On the farm gate, direct sales to private customers can reach £80 a bird which includes all the trimmings with weights ranging from 4kg up to 9kg – with the larger birds being the most profitable.
Will loves the seasonality of turkeys and claims: “It’s the one time of the year that people want a local product and are prepared to pay for it. In the two weeks running up to Christmas – the supermarkets envy the butchers as a high percentage of shoppers go to their local butcher and buy locally reared meats, Christmas turkey, roast beef, gammon etc. Come 1 January those shoppers migrate back to the supermarket and ‘normality’ returns.”
The majority of the turkeys will be slaughtered around 6 December – a process which takes three to four days. They then hang them for 10 days after which they are gutted and packaged up ready for the oven.
Will says: “Hanging the birds for 10 days adds flavour and tenderises the meat”. He adds a recipe leaflet into each box detailing how to cook and carve your turkey, a recipe for turkey pie, and information about the farm. It’s even got some interesting turkey facts. For instance did you know that the first meal eaten by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon was roast turkey!
Will also likes the fact that come Christmas Day turkey season is finished and you can enjoy some time off, which he admits is rare for a farmer. “Up until this year it’s been relentless with the pigs, and the cattle – it never stops especially with weekly orders coming through.”
Selling pigs and cattle direct
Will previously ran a larger Sussex suckler herd as well as pigs, selling the animals direct to butchers, farm shops, and restaurants. He has subsequently focussed on turkeys, as there wasn’t enough profit in his beef and pork operation once the cost of the ‘added value’ had been taken into account.
“On beef and pork you’re producing it at a loss – I got £4 a kilo deadweight for beef but I paid for the slaughter. For that you have to keep the animal for two winters – it’s hard to make it stack up.
Similarly for pigs, I would get about a £100 back from the butcher, but they would eat £100 worth of food.
When I was processing the pigs myself, on paper, it was a different story, I would get about £270 back – so another £170, but by the time you got the butcher to cut it up into primals, paid my staff to process it, package it, invoice it, the extra income was swallowed up. If I didn’t do any of that myself then it’s just gone.”
“We were turning over £250,000 in sales but selling pretty much 100% of it through other retail outlets, offering them a 25% ‘discount’. If we’d been getting the retail price – it would have been a completely different business, that’s where the profit is.
Often customers don’t seem to realise how difficult it is to maintain a supply of something you are producing – I thought I’m not getting enough reward for this. I can have a much simpler life by focusing on Christmas turkeys.”
On Brexit and the wider food system
“I voted to remain primarily for the future of my kids. My own gut feeling – I like the pound, I believe in our independence – I don’t like the fact there is a higher court than our own. In terms of subsidies and grants. I rent this farm – I don’t get any direct payments. There’s no production grants for Turkeys – there never has been.”
While subsidies don’t directly affect Will he does worry about the wider impact: “I think it will have a pretty dramatic affect on farming once subsidies dry up. It will also have a significant knock on effect for associated trades such as farm machinery manufacturers etc”.
“I’d like to think consumers will pay a fairer price for food and realise that locally produced food is better for many reasons. While I completely agree with the sentiment of eating less but better quality meat, I do worry that the majority of people are beginning to eat less meat but still go to McDonalds; rather than buying locally reared grass fed beef – splash out on it and make it last several meals. Instead of that – they go to KFC or McDonalds – which is only fuelling the mass production.”
Will’s aim is to get to about 2500 turkeys ‘sold well’ i.e at an average sale price of around £50.00.
“If I can produce them for around £35.00 that leaves me with a reasonable margin per bird – that’s my aim.” He also cites a growing demand for turkey crowns and rolled turkey breast.
“I see that growing more and more. People want slightly smaller joints – they don’t want the waste. It’s boneless – we’ll stuff it, bacon on top – it’s a lovely little waste free joint.”
Like a lot of farmers Will has another job to help bring in extra income – carrying out freelance planning and drafting work – often for other farmers. Which he finds both mentally and financially rewarding – “it’s using your brain as well as your hands.”