Fewer farms now producing traditionally-reared turkeys

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Sharp morning frost followed by blue sky, sunshine and a wind to remove skin, or a temperature in the teens, rain and mist?

An easy enough choice, if we could make it. So much of December so far has been an improvement on a dank November. For the first half of this month there has also often been a reminder of the pleasure of going to work by moonlight.

There are also fewer people heading for farm poultry sheds in the early morning moonlight on the countdown to Christmas dinner. Many farms used to keep a few dozen turkeys or capons to supply local customers, as well as take their chance at auction sales. Some farm workers also kept birds for welcome extra income at this time of year. But on-farm turkey plucking and preparation has declined steadily through lack of labour – and it is hard work – and the few farms in our area that still produce traditional farm turkeys have to deal in fairly big numbers. Not as big as the tens of thousands being produced for supermarkets, but big enough to make the first three weeks of December a busy, often chilly, and frequently nerve-wracking time matching weights to orders.

Much the same applies to vegetable growers. The home-grown brassica market is worth about £550million a year in Britain. That includes, as we know, Brussels sprouts, and about 16 per cent of the total national crop is sold in December. As we also know, sprouts are the butt of more Christmas jokes than anything else. It’s difficult to know why when they’ve been part of our diet for more than four centuries. Not only that, varieties have been bred with more taste and better texture. And you don’t have to go far in the eastern Borders to see how professionally and well all brassica crops, including sprouts, are grown. Perhaps it goes back to the British habit of boiling all vegetables until they were soggy and jokes about school and other institutional dinners. Surely the endless cookery shows on television, if nothing else, have taught us that cabbage, sprouts and broccoli are not only nutritious, but tasty when correctly cooked?

Richard Simpson, vice-chairman and fifth generation of Simpsons Malt, recently gave an interesting run-through of the company’s history – “150 years in 15 slides” – at the Merse Agricultural Discussion Society in Duns. He reminded us that old-style maltings often burned down – wooden buildings and anthracite heating – while converting barley to malt. And that turning hundreds of tonnes of grain with wooden shovels was hot, hard, heavy work.

At their modern Berwick and Norfolk sites, Simpsons is now one of the biggest maltsters in Europe. But planning for the future is no easier for maltsters than it is for growers of malting barley, he said. Distillers now account for about two-thirds of malt use and they can turn demand on or off rapidly. That sounded familiar to farmers.