In a flap over turkeys as Christmas rush begins

With less than three weeks left before Robert Garner’s 1750 free-range Bronze turkeys begin their journey to the nation’s tables, his workload is starting to increase dramatically.

While the farm’s arable business is winding down after completing most of its autumn cultivations and spray programmes, the busiest and most stressful time of the year is just beginning for Robert and his mother Sara, who handles the orders.

The turkeys, which will be killed at between 25 and 27 weeks, are now at a critical period of the production cycle.

“You have got to be ever so careful and really treat them with kid gloves,” says Robert.

“They are very inquisitive, their own worst enemy.

They have 360 vision and will literally take flight at anything, and if that happens they will hit walls, fences, feeders.”

Even if a bird doesn’t appear physically damaged, the slightest knock to a wing or, more crucially, a breast, will leave bruises that will make it unsaleable under the strict guidelines of the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association, to which Godwick belongs.

And with a 10kg bird retailing for over 50, it doesn’t take too many rejects to hit profits.

“I hate this time of the year,” confesses Robert.

“The next two to three weeks will get busier and busier and the week before Christmas is absolutely manic.

Sometimes I just don’t sleep because we are working to such strict delivery times.”

At the moment, local butchers and farm shops are Robert’s biggest customers, but he aims to increase direct sales of the turkeys, which are grown for significantly longer periods than a typical retail bird because the margins are better.

To help promote the business, he has hit the marketing trail, investing 1000 in a top-quality brochure and order form that will be on display at local shops and events.

It features the farm’s new Godwick Farm Fresh Produce logo, as well as promoting its website,

He has also taken stands at the Norfolk Food Festival at Sandringham and a food fair at Burnham Market.

“It’s not cheap – I’ve paid over 450 in entry fees – but my aim is to get the brand out there and to do that, you’ve got to get out and target potential customers,” says Robert.

“A growing proportion of the public is prepared to pay a premium for a fresh turkey, but you need to work bloody hard to get their business.

I’ve had to learn new skills and become a marketer.

It’s the way all farmers will probably have to go in the future.”

Although tabloid hysteria about avian flu has proved wide of the mark, alarmist media headlines haven’t helped poultry producers and were one of the reasons Robert decided to invest in the brochure, which stresses the natural and free-range characteristics of his turkeys.

“I thought the consumer needed reassurance,” he says.

And so far it seems to have worked, with a good response from shoppers at Sandringham last weekend.

“The tastings went well and everybody seemed to like the product. We gave out 500-600 brochures and 15 people ordered on the day.

There were one or two questions but I was surprised how few people asked about avian flu.”

Successful turkey production can be a profitable business, but Robert isn’t keen to reveal his margins, for reasons of confidentiality.

“There is a nice return from Christmas turkeys, but it is a very capital-intensive business and there is a hell of a lot of risk and plenty of rules and regulations to follow.

From the beginning of 2006, HACCP regulations come into force so we may have to invest in a cold store.”

Since deciding to take the plunge into full-scale production in 2000, Robert and father John have invested more than 50,000 in expanding the business.

“It’s a huge and ongoing commitment,” he says.

“The cost is frightening – you have to keep growing just to keep up with the investment.”

One thing is certain, however: the turkeys are now a vital part of Godwick’s business.

“Without them, the farm wouldn’t support two families,” says Robert who, reinforcing their importance, has just sold the balance of last harvest’s feed wheat for 67.50/t ex-farm.

“The feed wheat was about where we thought it would be in terms of yield, but these prices are not sustainable,” he says.

“The trade is saying 70/t is looking likely for next year, but if you take into account the increase in fuel, fertiliser and labour costs, I suspect we will be no better off.”

Robert feels torn between his love of arable farming and the economic reality of the job.

“It sometimes feels like we are doing it for the sake of it. I’m not prepared to keep on borrowing if there is nothing in it – it’s a futile waste of time.”

But, in common with many other farmers, Robert says it would be hard to bear seeing somebody else farming the land.

“I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.

“I’m desperate to carry on, so with these prices we will just have to reduce costs even more.

The turkeys are taking me away from the arable side of things, so even though I prefer to plough, we might have to consider min till and switch to a second-hand tracked machine pulling an all-in-one cultivator.”

Meanwhile, on the livestock side of the business, a lower-than-average success rate following the AI of his pedigree Suffolk ewes is adding to John Garner’s growing conviction that it may not be worth continuing with the breed’s sire reference scheme.

“Normally 70% hold but this time it was only 64%, which means 66 lambs from 44 sheep,” he says.

“I can’t see any reason for it, so I’m mystified and annoyed.

What concerns me is that I’ve spent 1550 AI-ing 69 ewes and to get that sort of return is just not good enough; 35 a ewe is a lot of money.”

However, John thinks he knows why the conception rate of his commercial flock has slipped from last year’s 183% to 163%.

“Until this year, I’ve always put four teaser rams in a few weeks before the proper ones to stimulate the maiden ewes, but this year they’d died or been put down.”

One welcome development, though, is that the farm’s application forms for the entry and higher level environmental schemes have been submitted at last after the Rural Payments Agency eventually supplied the correct maps.

John paid a FWAG adviser 2000 to come up with plans for both schemes and, if his applications are accepted, they should generate a combined 25,000.

A further 20,000 capital grant to help protect a Roman site as part of HLS should also be on the cards.

“It was all planned for August, so we’ve been delayed by about three months,” says John.

“Hopefully we’ll know if we’ve been successful by February and if it comes off, it will take a bit of pressure off the farming side of things.

I know somebody who’s been crazy enough not to do it.”

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