Steven Peirson produces a surprisingly rare bird for the Christmas table. Chris Benfield went to ask him what an organic turkey is and why we do not see very many of them.
SURPRISINGLY, Hook House Farm, Kirkby Fleetham, near Catterick, is the only Yorkshire entry on the Soil Association's list of organic turkey producers. The Soil Association is not the only certifier and there are a couple of rivals to mention, but even so ...
According to farmer Steven Peirson, one reason he and his birds are comparatively rare is customer confusion, thanks to the range of competing labels.
Do you want a white or a bronze bird? On the face of it, the difference is only a matter of feathering, but the white is usually mass-produced and factory-processed, because it was bred for both and the feather colour does not leave spots when the bird is mechanically plucked. The bronze has regained a good share of the market because it is closer to the original wild birds and because it has to be dry-plucked, by hand, which effectively puts a limit on the scale of farming. Kelly Bronze, the Essex outfit which led the revival, advertises to point out that its franchisees guarantee their birds are free range, slow-matured and more or less antibiotic-free, to the standards of the Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association. That has contributed to a perception, Mr Peirson believes, that organic simply means more expensive.
In fact, he says, he goes to more trouble than most TFTA producers and charges the same. He has heard of organic birds in a supermarket for 10 less than his. But check closely, he suggests, and there will have been a corner cut somewhere.
"We do it all," he says. "Organic certification is about the welfare of the birds and the balance of the farm. TFTA rules are about the taste of the meat. We comply with both and then we kill on the farm, which means the birds are not stuffed in a truck. We hang them before dressing, which is key to flavour and texture. A machine-processed bird is dipped in hot water before plucking and you cannot hang it wet, so it has to be frozen right away. But a bird could be wet-plucked and not hung and still sold as organic.
"Because of the space we have to give the birds, they are quite fit. They can have a limb injury which would see them trampled in a shed and you don't even know about it, because they have hopped along quite happily. They get bigger and stronger as opposed to more obese.
"They forage in the fields and then they come back to a choice between our home-grown cereals and an organic feed mix, from Vitrition of Boroughbridge. And it is interesting to see how they mix and match.
"We start the birds in June and start killing in the second week of December. A lot of cheap birds are killed at 10-12 weeks. We hand-pluck, employing eight people for four days, at a cost of about 4 a bird. And then we hang the carcases for a week. I don't think you can get all we do for less than we charge."
One way and another, though, interest has settled to give him a modest Christmas target of about 400 birds, although he was up to 600 at one point. One problem was trying to be too organic. For several years, he bought traditionally-bred old breeds, like Norfolk Blacks and Bourbon Reds. But the birds were leggy and small-breasted and some customers complained. They were also wilder than a farmer with neighbours likes to have to deal with. He kept having to fetch them back from somebody's roof. This year, he went back to the scientifically selected Kelly Bronzes, like most of his rivals.
He sells half his stock at the farm gate, pre-ordered, for prices starting at around 55. See www.hookhousefarm.co.uk or call 01609 748977. Dealers include The Organic Pantry, Tadcaster; Great Northern Wines, Ripon; the Organic Farm Shop, Pickering; and Mill Rigg Farm Shop, Stokesley.
Swillington Organic Farm, Leeds, and Adrian Procter at Farcappleside Farm, Rathmell, near Settle, produce smaller numbers of organic birds, certified by the Organic Farmers and Growers. Mr Procter can be found through the website of the Craven Arms, Giggleswick, where he serves up some of his produce.
Mr Peirson's grandfather bought Hook House Farm post-war and fattened pigs on slops from Catterick Camp. Steven's father, Denis, carried on until the ups and downs of pigs got too much and he went more or less all-arable. But he had some turkeys when the current Mr Peirson took over in 1999, after university and a spell in farm supplies and grain trading. He is 49, with two teenage daughters and a wife with her own career. Hook House is only big enough for one farmer at a time, with 150 acres attached and 100 rented.
Crops were a problem on the gravelly land, which easily went into drought. He thought organic growing would mean gambling less on inputs and would give him hardier plants, as well as a premium on what did grow.
"We had built up to 50 per cent setaside, so there was an opportunity to establish clover leys to give us a natural source of nitrogen," he says. "Organic made sense for this farm at that time. And one thing leads to another."
The arable fields are planted in spring only and rotated so half the acreage is pasture at any time. The turkeys run on the pastures, on the margins around the crops, and in the stubbles after harvest. Unlike chickens, they are happy in the open.
"You open the shed doors and it's rush hour," says Mr Peirson. "I can tell you they are happier and healthier than most, but I can't get that on a label.
"The only thing that gets measured is mortality – and a turkey is not going to die of unhappiness."