22 December 2000

Turkeys delight on first foray into direct sales

By Wendy Owen North-east correspondent

LOCATION, location, location – that is the all-important factor which has allowed arable farmers Robert and Lea Darling, to diversify into Christmas turkey production this year.

But start-up costs mean that profits will have to wait until the enterprise is repeated in 2001.

Poor returns from the 100ha (250 acres) of combinable crops at Burtree House, Darlington, Co Durham, led the couple to look for another source of income.

Just a few miles from the busy town of Darlington and adjacent to the A1, they decided that direct sales were the best option. An advertisement in farmers weekly caught their eye and in July, after passing a farm inspection, they took delivery of 150 KellyBronze Christmas turkeys under a franchise agreement with Essex-based Kelly Turkeys.

As one of 14 franchisees around the country, the farm has to keep to a strict production standard to ensure uniformity of product. This even extends to the size of the writing giving the birds weights on the provided packaging.

Turkeys are sold at a price/kg set by the company and usually average about £35/bird. Total production costs amounted to about £15/head, leaving a predicted gross margin of £20/bird, or £3000 for the 150-bird flock. But with £3000 start-up costs, no more than a break-even figure is expected this year. The biggest expense was the refrigerated unit for dressing and hanging the birds, but Mr Darling was

lucky enough tofind a second-hand unit for £500.

The food for the franchisees is provided by the company and subsidised in the first year until birds are sold. The ration is guaranteed free from antibiotics, growth promoters, GMOs and animal protein. The company also insists that turkeys hang for at least 10 days to promote flavour. These attributes won the KellyBronze turkeys a best speciality product award at last years British Turkey Products of the Year ceremony.

As first-time rearers, the Darlings were sent six-week-old beak-trimmed birds. Next year, when they have more experience, they will start with day-old chicks and this means buying more feed and brooding equipment.

During the 18-week rearing period this season, birds were kept in a shed with access to an outdoor paddock, fenced with electric poultry netting. Ironically, the only three losses have been through birds getting tangled in wire.

"We have taken out livestock

insurance for the turkeys, but they are really quite easy to look after, taking about 10 minutes at either end of the day. Their management fits in well, as our busiest time with the turkeys comes when things are quiet on the arable side, and we have also used our own straw for bedding," says Mr Darling.

"I have to shut them in at night to keep foxes out and the best way is to put a light on in the shed at dusk, which entices them in. They do not scratch the ground up like hens and they leave grass in good order, levelling out molehills and eating thistles." The minimum requirement is 6m sq/bird (65ft sq) outdoors and 0.3m sq (3.5ft sq) inside, but it was easier to give ours more space because of paddock layout.

In the run-up to Christmas, orders are being taken at farmers markets, where Mrs Darling also sells home-made cakes. Eventually, the couple plan to open a farm shop and hope to take 200 birds next year.

One of the biggest headaches is filling orders for differing weights of birds. Most are expected to be 4-7kg finished, but until they are killed and hung, exact weights are difficult to judge. No deposit is taken, but customers are asked to sign a contract when ordering.

The busiest time is killing and plucking before Christmas. An experienced plucker can handle three birds/hour and with help from their two teenagers, the Darlings expect to manage without extra help.

Some turkeys have been sold by mail order through the franchise operator, although this adds £10 to the price to cover the insulated box required by health laws. Orders are taken through autumn, but customers can only collect turkeys from the farms chiller unit on either Dec 23 or 24. That ensures birds are in prime condition when eaten and encourages repeat business.

Any unsold birds will be bought back by Kelly Turkeys at butcher price in the first year.

&#8226 Kelly Turkeys will be looking for new franchisees in 2001 (01245-223581). &#42

Lea and Robert Darling hope turkeys will help boost returns on their Darlington arable farm.


&#8226 Boosts farm income.

&#8226 Fits labour profile.

&#8226 Easy to look after.