FEW of us give much consideration to the tender turkey on our plates at Christmas, yet it’s the result of hard labour and months of care. Star reporter Rachael Clegg meets the Sheffielders who bring the turkey to the table.
THERE’S a great deal of kerfuffle going on at Hangram Lane farm.
More than 1,000 turkeys are nattering, clucking and stomping around as livestock farmer Andrew Clark prepares for the busiest week of the working year – Christmas week.
“Here they are,” says Andrew, as he walks into a huge shed packed with a sea of huge plump and cheery turkeys. “You can see that they’re happy, look at them.”
He’s right. This mass of bustling activity – spread across two huge pens – looks like the poultry equivalent of Glastonbury, only less muddy. These turkeys are quite clearly happy as Larry.
And as Andrew and Alison approach the gate, all 1,050 of the chubby birds gravitate towards them. “They all think we’re ‘mum’ you see. From the day they arrive here as chicks and we open the crates they instantly think we’re their mother.”
The turkey chicks are delivered from an Essex turkey breeder in July. It takes only six months for them to reach full-size, just in time for Christmas.
“We make sure we have a few different breeds of turkey so that we get a variation in size.”
Andrew raises ‘Bronze’ and ‘White’ turkeys. The ‘Bronze’ turkeys are supposed to be a better taste, though Andrew disagrees with this. “I’d rather have a white turkey and children prefer the White because the Bronze turkey meat is covered in black dots, where it’s been plucked of its black feathers.”
In the lead-up to Christmas, Andrew will pluck his birds of all their feathers, leave them to hang – a process that helps the meat mature and ‘dress’ them, i.e. remove their intestines.
It’s all hard graft that’s concentrated into a very small time frame of about one week. But Andrew loves it.
“I really enjoy working with the animals and the early starts aren’t bad when you’re working for yourself. You just do it.”
Andrew was born into farming. His grandfather bought Hangram Lane Farm in 1949 as a ‘hobby farm’ while running his fabrication and engineering business in Sheffield.
But for Andrew, farming was everything.
He said: “From an early age I had a real interest in it so my dad kept it going and as soon as I left school I started working here.”
He runs the farm with his wife, Alison, who is also of farming heritage. “She had to be to be with me,” he laughs. Such is the extent of Andrew’s farming blood that he doesn’t even need an alarm clock for those middle-of-the night starts.
“When the cattle’s calving or when a calf needs feeding you just know what time you need to be up and you just get up.
“It’s like having kids. You just get used to having interrupted sleep patterns.”
The price of turkey is expected to be around 25 per cent higher this year as a result of rising demand for meat from the rapidly expanding middle classes in the developing world, in countries such as China and India.
The cost of turkey feed has also doubled in the last year, making the average price of a 12lb turkey jump from £40 to £50 this year.
And even in the semi-rural idyll of Ringinglow, Andrew is feeling the effects of this phenomenon.
“The demand for food is increasing more than people think,” says Andrew. He points to a graph in his farming magazine, which shows the rapidly rising value of meat.
“It’s a really big issue – there will be food shortages.”
But it’s not just Andrew working hard to meet the turkey demand.
Across the city, over in Holmsfield, is another turkey farmer, William Biggin, who has been rearing turkeys for more than 30 years.
He has 1,500 turkeys at his farm and, like Andrew, William has to make a real push to get them ready for Christmas. Before these plump specimens of poultry reach the butcher’s they are electronically stunned, plucked, eviscerated and then hung.
And all this to keep up with our insatiable appetite for the Christmas tradition of turkey, one that started in England as early as the 16th-century. But before this the traditional meat at Christmas was a boar or peacock and then goose became the common meat until the 19th-century, as Charles Dickens shows in his Christmas Carol.
In fact, the goose was such a big purchase during the Victorian era that there were ‘saving’ clubs, through which working class men and women could pay for their goose in instalments in the lead-up to Christmas.
Few of us eat goose at Christmas – turkey has been whetting our festive appetite for almost 200 years now.
But one man who won’t be eating turkey is William Biggin.
“I don’t eat turkey at Christmas – I have duck or pheasant,” he laughs.
The Clarks, on the other hand, will be enjoying a well-earned rest. “We don’t do anything over Christmas apart from relax,” says Andrew.
And rightly so.