Getting the turkeys ready for Christmas at Ashford Farm near Petersfield
PUBLISHED: 11:37 22 December 2014 | UPDATED: 13:51 25 March 2015
While most of us are still shopping for sprouts and last minute presents Alex Bridger of Ashford Farm near Petersfield is getting 1,000 turkeys ready for the big day. She tells Fran Benson what it's like being a farmer's wife at Christmas
We’re standing in Alex’s kitchen on a bright November morning. The AGA is belting out some serious heat and she’s just back from dropping her three children, Henry (8), Emily (6) and Patrick (4), off at school. Breakfast bowls are scattered on the table and crusts of bread are bagged up ready to feed the chickens. Despite the unseasonal temperatures outside, Christmas is coming - a busy time of year for Alex and her husband, Simon. There are nativity plays and assemblies to attend and Christmas presents and cards to organise. And as the festive season looms, the turkeys, which they’ve raised from tiny chicks, are soon to become the stars of the Christmas feast on dinner tables around the county.
We walk through a hanger, which will soon become the turkeys’ final resting place and out in to a large field where hundreds of the festive birds gather around us. Nosy and noisy, they jostle for position. A male puffs up his feathers and spreads his wings. Alex makes a clucking yelping noise and the turkeys all yelp back happily.
These are Kelly Turkeys and they range in size from 10lbs to over 20lbs.
“We have Tinies, Super Minies, Roly Polys, Plumpies and Wrolstads, which are the biggest ones,” Alex explains. “Their genetics determine what weight they will be at slaughter. It’s not an exact science, so some years they will be a little heavier, or lighter, than expected.”
The turkeys arrive at Ashford Farm as day-old chicks in July, from a hatchery in Essex. But this is the one and only time the turkeys are transported. Alex tried to hatch some on the farm last year, but out of 100 eggs she only got two chicks.
“It’s quite a specialised art. We can’t get around the fact that we have to buy in the chicks, but from that point on they never leave the property.”
At first the chicks stay inside the barn until they have ‘feathered up’, at which point they can then go outside. Feathers start to appear within a few days, but it can take up to six weeks for them to get their full coat.
Alex and Simon keep a careful eye on the chicks to make sure they don’t become ill or get too cold. In those first few weeks in the barn they live in a pen with heat lamps suspended from the ceiling. The chicks gather beneath them to keep warm. If the lamps are too close together, the turkeys will huddle and some will suffocate.
“If it’s a warm day and we turn the lamps off, we have to make sure we turn them on in time as they will start to huddle to keep warm,” says Alex. “It’s the reason the pen is round, so there are no corners for the chicks to get squashed in.”
If it’s hot, they also have to make sure their chicks don’t get dehydrated; and then there are the foxes. The farm is fenced all the way around.
“Is it completely fox proof?” she asks herself. “No.” But so far they have not had a problem.
When the turkeys are big enough, they’re allowed outside during the day to roam around the yard and the fields where they can peck at the grass and forage for grubs. They mostly consume a diet of oats – which the Bridgers grow on the farm – enriched with minerals to ensure they have everything they need to remain healthy.
There is a mix of black and white turkeys pecking around my feet. The black ones have a bronze sheen to their feathers that shimmer in the sun. These are known as Bronzes and give a slightly darker meat and gamier flavour than the traditional white varieties. They like to perch up high and several are sitting on the fences watching me with interest. These are free range birds and it’s lovely to see them ruling the roost. They can wander around the farm as they please and especially enjoy rolling around in the bonfire ash or wood chippings, which helps to clean their feathers.
Despite their noisy appearance, it appears that turkeys are quite sensitive. They hate fireworks, thunderstorms and helicopters. Alex laughs: “It’s a huge benefit that our bedroom is right over the barn, and so we hear them if there is a problem in the night. I will be at the window calling out to them as Simon runs around in his pyjamas to calm them down, otherwise they will panic and huddle.”
These traditional, slow growing turkeys have been nurtured by the Bridgers for nearly six months. But now that they are fully grown, I wonder if she feels a sadness when it is time for them to be slaughtered.
“Towards mid-December I’ll be putting them in the barn for one of their last nights and I’ll be thinking ‘you’ve only got one more day some of you’.” For a moment Alex’s voice wobbles, her emotions at conflict with the business. “Of course they don’t know,” she continues. “They’re quite happy. But no one likes to kill anything, even when it’s your job.”
It’s Simon who holds the slaughter licence and it usually takes him several days. I ask how easy this is for him. “If you asked him, he’d say ‘I’m fine,’ but he doesn’t like it. It’s not nice is it?” She pauses. “We know it’s done humanely. It’s very quick, and they’ve had happy lives, which is a massive plus. It’s also important for us that they don’t get transported at the end – they’re not herded onto lorries where they could get stressed and peck each other.”
It’s all in a days work for the Bridgers but she admits “it’s very quiet when they’re gone.”
There’s a lot of effort to get the birds ready for their customers. After they are slaughtered they have their wing feathers plucked by hand, then they are dry plucked, partly by machine and partly by hand, and then hung in the chiller for seven to ten days to allow the flavours to mature; then they are gutted and boxed.
The turkeys are weighed regularly throughout the whole process, to give Alex an idea of whether she’s got enough of the right size turkeys for her customers. They have regular staff that come back every December to help prepare the turkeys. Many are old students who came to them originally for a holiday job and, even now with careers of their own, come back to help out in the evenings and at weekends; and if there is any shortfall they hire in agency staff to fill the gaps.
The 21st of December is Alex’s busiest day of the year. The turkeys are ready to be allocated to the customers and she must make sure that everyone gets the size that they ordered. She starts at 6am and keeps going in to to the early hours until every turkey is labelled and ready to collect. Only once she’s finished does she allow herself a glass of Baileys or a port.
“It’s a big responsibility knowing that around 1,000 people in the area are eating one of our turkeys on Christmas day. We want to get it right.”
At 8am on the 22nd the first customers will arrive. Some of them have been coming here for more than ten years.
“We talk to them every year. We know what’s going on in their families.” From now until the 24th she is greeting customers and handing over their orders. Most of them come from the local town and villages: Petersfield, Liss, Rake and Liphook. Occasionally some come from further afield – last year one customer travelled up from Bournemouth to collect three birds.
Then she can start to think about her own family.
“When I’ve finished on the farm I think, ‘now I’ve got to do Christmas for three children’.”
Like many of us with children she’ll be up until midnight, finishing off the wrapping before collapsing into bed and then getting up early for present opening. Later in the day they’ll gather with the rest of their family for dinner.
Turkey? I ask. “Yes,” she says stretching the word out like a piece of elastic and smiling, “but I do like a nice bit of beef as well.”