A little over one hour on the fast train from London, Appledore in Kent is a world away from the city. It’s isolated countryside where cab companies refuse to pick you up and passing cars are few and far between – a perfect place to grow turkeys.
Turkey producer Clive Wreathall runs Priory Farm on Romney Marsh, a 1,000ha (2,471-acre) mixed arable and turkey unit which the family has been operating for the almost 50 years.
Along with his brother Andrew, Clive raises 14,000 bronze free-range turkeys and 6,000 white traditional barn-reared birds for the Christmas market. On the arable side of the business, the family grows first and second wheat, oilseed rape and peas for human consumption on grade 2 silt. As one of the last turkey producers in Kent, Mr Wreathall is concerned about the decline in the business locally. As producers move away, his operation becomes more isolated, with services such as feed and veterinary knowledge harder to get.
“As an industry loses its critical mass, then it becomes less viable for feed companies to make specific diets for traditional turkeys, because they’ve got so few producers to buy it,” said Mr Wreathall.
“BOCM Pauls, who I have bought my feed off until now, are finding it increasingly difficult to get it to me, with the cost of diesel and labour, and most importantly the time. On a bad day, they are almost losing one lorry all day to do just one delivery.
“We have to go further to get veterinary skills, too, because no vet in Kent is going to become a specialist in poultry if there’s no poultry.
“In some ways we will be the biggest and the last man standing (in Kent). We can only do so much. If it’s not available to the consumer at a reasonable price, then the consumer will buy another product and stop looking for our type of production.”
Mr Wreathall said he wanted to see more producers coming into production locally, offering more choice in products, stimulating the local market and hopefully attracting back those essential services for poultry production.
Recently Priory Farm hosted the Anglian Turkey Association farm walk with about 25 producers, including Paul and Derek Kelly of Kelly’s Turkeys, making the trek from the east down to Kent.
The producers heard how Appledore has grown from producing only 3,000 birds in 1999 to the 20,000+ now, managing orders for a greatly expanded customer base and dipping a toe into online sales.
“The butcher trade is getting much smaller, so we have a declining market to sell into. So we are constantly looking into new places. There’s internet sales and farmgate sales. There are still opportunities out there,” said Mr Wreathall.
“We haven’t pushed (internet sales) very hard so far, mainly because there’s a limit to what we can do at any one time,” he added. “Internet sales are very lucrative, being direct from the farm to the consumer. But they’re not without their problems. For a one-day market, once a year it’s extraordinarily difficult.
“The trouble is, like with last year, we get some bad weather and people don’t pick them up or the deliveries can’t get through so the family sits down for Christmas lunch without their turkey. It’s very problematic.”
But the year-on-year growth for the business has stretched their facilities with the day quickly approaching when the Wreathall’s will need to discuss the future for the farm. “Our plucking system has got some spare capacity in it, but the biggest limitation on our production now is refrigeration capacity,” said Mr Wreathall.
“Over the next couple of years I can see more investment going into refrigeration. But there will come a point where we can’t stretch the assets anymore and we will have to sit down and work out how we go forward from there.
A few years ago, the Wreathalls were telling their children to avoid a career in agriculture. But now, with the price of wheat soaring and the turkey business growing each year, they are quietly suggesting their children consider a farming future.
“As you can imagine, with the price of wheat going from £65/t to £200/t, arable is pretty bloody rewarding. Both parts of the business are very important, but as with most things in life, those that pay you the best give you the most pleasure,” said Mr Wreathall.
• For a video of the Anglian Turkey Association visit to Appledore, visit our website at www.fwi.co.uk/poultry