The finalists of the Poultry Farmer of the Year Award run three very different enterprises, covering organic eggs, intensive broilers and free-range chickens and turkeys. But they have one thing in common – they are all first-generation farmers who have built their businesses up from nothing.
Mark Gorton and David Garner
Traditional Norfolk Poultry, Norfolk
From 12 bronze turkeys for Christmas in 1987 to a business now processing 50,000 chickens a week, Traditional Norfolk Poultry has come a long way in 25 years.
Set up by friends Mark Gorton and David Garner, the pair had no experience whatsoever of poultry farming – Mark just had a smallholding and David a disused pig unit, soon to become a processing plant.
From small beginnings the business expanded, and in the second year the pair grew 200 Christmas turkeys, rising to 2,000 the year after that.
“We also got involved in growing corn-fed, free-range chicken and then organic chicken too,” says Mark. “We were one of the pioneers with organic poultry, and have been growing them for nearly 20 years.”
As with any successful business, hard work was a prerequisite, especially in the early days when both Mark and David had other full-time jobs. Killing and packing took place in the evenings, the birds were delivered from Norfolk to Smithfield before breakfast and the next day’s orders were sorted out during their lunch breaks.
“This was clearly not sustainable, so we handed in our notices and decided to concentrate on poultry.”
From the start, high welfare has played a key role. “We were growing our poultry the way we thought was right – free-range, with lots of light, perches and environmental enrichments, things that at the time were unheard of.”
The major breakthrough for TNP came in the mid-1990s when Tesco asked the partners to supply it with organic chicken, via a third-party processor.
“This allowed us to up our volume,” says Mark. “But we wanted to be in charge of our own destiny and, when Asda started looking for British farmers, we approached them and agreed to supply them direct.
“But we were still operating out of our small, home-made factory, so we decided to bite the bullet and, in 2003, commissioned a new 35,000sq ft state-of-the-art factory at Shropham.”
“We were growing our poultry the way we thought was right – free-range, with lots of light, perches and environmental enrichments, things that at the time were unheard of.”
The company had also been busy building up its production base, recruiting contract growers for both chickens and turkeys.
Today, TNP operates 35 farms – about half under direct control and the other half with contract rearers. It has some 400 home-built mobile arcs on 400 acres of range, and all birds – Hubbard 757s – are reared to Freedom Food standards.
The farms are all within one hour of the factory, to support the strong regional identity and to advance bird welfare. The company also employs a full-time welfare officer – one of over 100 permanent staff.
The chicks are kept indoors for 28 days, then moved to either a static or mobile unit, where they are reared to 56-63 days, when they weigh about 2.2kg. “We don’t get too worried about FCR as there are so many variables with our type of production, and we are flexible about kill age.”
TNP also grows some 130,000 free-range turkeys, mostly supplied by Kellys, for the Christmas market.
The factory can kill 2,500 chickens an hour, or up to 1,000 turkeys.
Things get especially busy in the three weeks before Christmas, when both lines have to be processed.
One of the secrets of their success is their willingness to innovate, says David. In 2007 they started offering rare-breed turkeys, and they are forever developing new products for leading supermarkets and brands.
They have also experimented with different rations, trialling a range of herbs, garlic and even milk powder to see the effect they had on flavour.
“Giving our customers what they want is crucial,” says Mark. “I always try and put myself in the customers’ mind. They are paying pretty much double for our products, so it is essential we do things the way they would expect them to be done.”
This means farming with a social and environmental conscience, doing things such as hosting farm visits, giving talks, planting trees and game cover and making donations to a range of charities.
It’s a philosophy that clearly works.
A word from our sponsor
“NatWest has been supporting UK agriculture for more than 200 yeards and following my recent visits to the three finalists for the Poultry Farmer of the Year awards, I continue to be encouraged by their enthusiasm and innovation.”
Ian Burrow, head of agriculture and renerwable energy Natwest
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash