Turkey trot that turns into a sprint

Although an advertisement featuring a big red truck and a catchphrase of holidays are coming for a worldwide brand of soft drink signals for many the starting gun of things beginning to look a lot like Christmas there is one form of produce that has never needed a multi-million pound television campaign at the festive season.

Turkey is the most widely consumed meat on Christmas Day in households throughout the UK and December is the time when arable farmer for over 330 days of the year, Christopher Payne of Market Weighton looks forward to dealing with customers who are often in various degrees of panic in trying to order what they hope will make the perfect centrepiece on the dining table.

“I enjoy turkey season,” says Christopher whose family is all involved including wife Alison, son Fergus and daughter Miriam. “Lots of people still don’t know that a fresh turkey prepared in the two weeks before Christmas is pretty much guaranteed to be more succulent than something that has been bought in a supermarket that has in all likelihood been gas flushed, which produces a dry turkey.

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“Traditionally produced, tender, juicy, mouthwatering turkey the way we have always done it is the best you can get.”

Payne's Turkeys at Riverhead Turkey Farm, Market Weighton.

Christopher has seen two major changes in the turkey sector in over 40 years of growing, preparing and selling and both have occurred in more recent years.

“The housewife or whoever is responsible for the purchase has become far more discerning or at very least far more inquisitive about quality, consistency and traceability.

“Everyone cooking the Christmas Day meal wants to have some form of assurance that what they’ve bought will be something everyone enjoys and is as tasty as possible. We had a customer last year who came to us for the first time and told us after Christmas that they had been buying turkey for the past 40 years and ours was the best they had ever had.

“Cooking the whole bird is the most preferable way as you get a much better flavour by being cooked on the bone and in its skin.

“There’s a definite trend away from turkey crowns and joints. We want everyone to enjoy their Christmas dinner and be overwhelmed by the taste of a succulent bird.

“The improvement in turkey genetics has taken professional turkey growing to the next level. We now know there is far greater consistency and quality and what weight each breed of turkey will achieve even before we start with them as day-olds in mid-July.

“I weigh them every fortnight so I can check they are all at the right weight for age, breed and sex.”

Turkeys generally fit in two main categories of Bronzes and Whites. Payne Turkeys are predominantly Whites.

“We are around 80 per cent Whites and 20 per cent Bronzes,” says Alison. “The Bronze has a very slight gamey flavour and the juices are a little bit darker. It’s all down to personal taste. There are several different breeds of each and they all produce masses of meat. Our sizes range from 8lbs to 30lbs.”

Christopher starts with 7,000 day-olds in July with 4,000 destined for other growers leaving him 3,000 for his own sales of which around 400-500 will be purchased direct at Riverhead Turkey Farm as well as supplying local businesses putting together Christmas hampers for employees and supply of farm shops, pubs, restaurants and butchers.

“Other farms or smallholdings don’t have the facility to rear young turkey chicks under heat of around 30 degrees for the first four weeks so it makes sense for them to buy from us once that stage has been completed and they can move into airy barns or outbuildings where they can grow.

“We feed them some of our own home grown wheat as well as a specialist pellet from local feed supplier Thompson’s in Murton.

“They’re very sociable birds that enjoy the fresh air and fresh straw bedding.

“We also sell some live turkeys to customers who want to organise their own preparation before Christmas.”

In just under a week’s time the Paynes’ turkeys for Christmas 2018 will be all set for shipping out either as clean plucked or oven ready. Fergus will be on the road.

Processing started last Saturday and everything will be ready for shipping or on-farm purchase by Thursday, December 20.

“It’s mayhem, but happy mayhem,” says Christopher. “I love this time of year and being able to help people who often ring in a degree of panic because they know they need a turkey and want it so much to be something they can count on.

“We have a good team that varies from 10-16 for this week and last week who are mainly Eastern Europeans who come every year. There was a time when villagers from Market Weighton would come but that is a good few years ago now.”

Christopher tells of how turkey farming became part of his livelihood from a very early age.

“‘My parents, Peter and Elizabeth, started farming at East Bursea Farm near Holme on Spalding Moor in 1952 and had a mixed farming operation of pigs, sheep, cattle and arable land.

“They diversified into turkeys to earn extra income and purchased what is today Riverhead Turkey Farm across the road from where we live just outside Market Weighton.

“Riverhead was purchased in 1958 and two further farms were acquired here at Market Weighton that today gives us an overall acreage including East Bursea of around 600 acres.

“While we are mainly arable farmers the rest of the year it’s a real family effort on the turkey front right now.

“Miriam keeps me in order. She’s back from university in Glasgow and looks after all the orders and invoicing.

“Fergus is on deliveries. Alison looks after the staff and my mum, now 89, keeps in touch with what’s going on. We will be going flat out on sales right up until midday on Christmas Eve.”