Thirsk poultry farmer's herbaceous business model is one of a kind

Nightingales never sang for Edward Wilkinson when he spent time near Berkeley Square but instead he's found the sweet sound of success with much larger birds back home in North Yorkshire since starting his Herb Fed Poultry enterprise at Pilmoor near Thirsk.

Edward Wilkinson pictured with his turkeys at his farm at Pilmoor, North Yorkshire. Picture: Simon Hulme

Edward can count food champions such as Janet Street Porter and Brian Turner among his visitors since his business was launched.

“I’d gone to London to pursue a career as a chartered surveyor but I wasn’t really made for life down there and came back after 18 months. I’d only been twice before my interview and both those occasions had been to support the Countryside March. I’m from a farming background, my parents John and Rosemary had been in pigs and horticulture years ago and since I wanted to develop a business of my own I came back to my farming roots.”

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Turkeys were his initial choice starting with 500 in 2009 and growing to 6,250 this year, all of which are now being processed for the Christmas rush, but what gives his business its unique selling point is the feeding of herbs.

“It was the second year that we started feeding herbs to the stock that arrived in July 2010. We went up to 1,500 that year. I’ve always gone for Bronze turkeys from the Kelly Bronze hatchery in Essex that come to us as day-olds. The Bronze is known for its greater depth of flavour, better overall quality of meat and although we don’t say they taste herby, ours do have a better depth of flavour to a turkey that isn’t herb-fed. We’re still the only UK company feeding our poultry on herbs and it is working well.”

Herbs include dill, flat and curly parsley, coriander, red chard, tarragon and mint and they all come from the waste generated from his aunt’s fresh herb business at Sand Hutton.

“My aunt Alison Dodd has been growing fresh herbs for at least 25 years and they don’t just enhance the turkey taste they also prove to be good for the birds in other ways such as their physical environment in giving them things to peck through. Any bird or animal appears to have an innate sense of knowing what nutrients it is missing from its diet and through the course of the turkey’s life you see it pecking one herb more than another. The turkeys clearly benefit.”

Herbs make up one aspect of the birds’ diet. Edward also uses a compound feed from a local mill that’s high in cereal.

“We finish our turkeys on a big percentage of whole oats and it is this that gives the right level of fat that allows them to self baste when cooked. The oats and the herbs really do make our product stand out from the rest.

“We’ve learned a hell of a lot in the past seven years but the principles of what we’re doing remain the same. We’re looking to produce high quality birds in high welfare and free range. Our standards exceed all that is laid down in the free range arena.”

Turkeys make up a small proportion of the birds produced and processed at Pilmoor. Edward replicates his herb-fed regime with chickens using the Ross breed, producing over 150,000 chickens a year, including 2,500 cock chickens - roosters - for the Christmas market.

“We now process 3,000 a week pretty much throughout the year given for a few peaks and dips. We’re supplying 150-plus butchers and farm shops throughout the UK. Christmas week sees us with seven vans on the road and sorting all of the logistics can be a headache but I relish the challenge, enjoy producing a quality product and satisfying customers whoever they are; butchers, farm shops and hopefully soon Booths supermarkets. We have our third trial with them in February. They are probably the only supermarket chain I would consider supplying because of the way they retail.”

Edward has a down to earth attitude to his future business aspirations.

“I’ve always just walked in with a chicken and asked them to try it. I then phone them the following week and invariably get an order or two. Once we’re in with the chickens I then offer a turkey and that way we develop the herb-fed brand and keep on rolling it through.”

Herb Fed Poultry may not have been quite where Edward saw himself years ago but business is flourishing and he is looking to take chicken production to 4,000 a week in 2017.