Supporting farms that impact positively on society and the environment when buying a Christmas bird could satisfy our consciences as well as our stomachs, says Tim Field
Christmas turkeys are heading for our table but we should choose the festive bird that satisfies our consciences, as well as our stomachs. Why not support the local turkey farmer, suggests Tim Field.
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The beauty of Christmas: friends and family; food and drink – the perfect cocktail to rekindle the year’s big debates and seek respite and contemplation in Church, concluded with a hangover-busting family shoot or Boxing Day meet. In spite of all this, the farmers’ daily routine continues. Crop growth may be on hold and livestock housed but the entrepreneurial farmer seldom gets a break. For some, Christmas begins in July and crescendos in the bleak mid-winter.
At Daylesford HQ, traditional Bronze turkeys arrive in summer once the lambing sheds have been cleaned out. The poults soon get bigger and bolder, venturing outdoors under the canopy of the purpose-planted trees – a throwback to their woodland, scrub and fringe heritage, fearing, of all things, a brilliant blue sky. They exhibit natural instincts for ranging, pecking at bugs and scratching around. However, poultry need no encouragement to turn on one another, a nearby snood mistaken for a bug soon escalates to cannibalism, so management is astute. Heavily stocked systems can get around this with beak trimming and snipping the snood; high welfare systems insist the bird stays intact and has space to express natural behaviour, resulting in reduced stress and feather pecking. The turkeys are finished on home-grown oats that bring beautiful oils to the meat and excellent moisture retention at cooking. In mild weather they can balloon and end up too big for the oven, so there is an art to holding them back involving a weekly weigh-in. For the more discerning, a Christmas goose is the sustainable alternative as it converts pasture more effectively and requires fewer inputs.
Then, one December night, in near darkness to minimise stress, the 1,300 Christmas turkeys weighing up to two stones each are quietly corralled and head for processing. It would be a long night for a lone poultryman or ag-student, so it’s a two-hour workout for the whole farm team that routinely ends in a well-earned pint. For some, that might be it but the entrepreneurial farmer is firing up. Plucking, processing, curing, bottling, packing, storing and delivering no end of wares. With the volatility of traditional farm business income, more and more holdings are diversifying into direct marketing and alternative income generation. Christmas can be a make or break period and with it come the trials and tribulations of selling direct.
SNOW STORMS AND BLITZ SPIRIT
In one year of crisis, I took charge of mail-order. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we had an 18-inch dump of snow on 19 December – the first fresh order dispatch day – and the two local Parcel Force depots were shut down. The phone lines glowed red as the supermarket turkey shelves emptied. Blitz spirit kicked in and my trusty steed headed a convoy of farm Defenders and the farmshop van (driven to make The Stig look like an amateur) delivering countless hampers and turkeys to the region’s last remaining operational Parcel Force depot at Coventry. A few more doorstep deliveries on Christmas Eve and Christmas cheer was restored.
That effort exemplifies in small part the farms’ dedication in bringing their pride to the table. From the grass-fed rare and native breeds to veg-box schemes and the more empire-building who venture into processing: cheese production, charcuterie or fruit liqueurs. Jez, our market garden manager, turns out the team to forage and assemble Christmas garlands inbetween harvests of sprouts. It buoys employment and earning potential in otherwise quiet times.
Like it or not, Christmas is a commercial focus when it comes to food production. So if we must indulge, perhaps the conscience could be cleared by supporting farming systems with positive impacts on society and environment. Save a rare breed by eating one. Put a pound in the local economy rather than the comfort of a shareholder with no connection to the Christmas turkeys. And if the table demands something a little more exotic, seek out a label that can be trusted, such as LEAF or Organic. For smoked salmon, we go organic certified from Inverawe Smokehouse. It tells me an independent party has inspected the stocking density, antibiotic usage, feed provenance, environmental care and provides reassurance where I can’t eyeball the production myself.
It’s not often the modern family makes time for such conviviality. While reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas, take pride in the provenance of the table shared. Give thanks to good flavour, nutrition, biodiversity and the local rural community. Will you celebrate with a stomp across your provider’s land for a Boxing Day blow out? I know I will.
Follow Tim and Agricology @agricology