A Tale of Two Fabulous Farmers

A Tale of Two Fabulous Farmers

I was in the supermarket some time ago, stocking up on groceries before heading to England on a farmer supplier trip. Browsing through the refrigerated aisle, I picked up a pack of cooked sandwich ham, nicely packaged in old fashioned looking brown paper. It was branded brightly with a “farm to table” slogan, a little red rosette with “trusted producer” in the corner. I flipped to the back label, which revealed the pork meat itself had originated in South America, was processed in Malaysia and was finally packaged in Singapore. It was a classic example of how the “farm to plate” message has been hijacked and massacred by the consumer marketing machine.

Aside from the horrible mis-use of a term that once meant something, I just felt badly for shoppers who, based on the brand message, trust that this ham has come from a lovely farm with happy pigs roaming about. Well, “farm to fork” in this case couldn’t be further from my definition. As you’ll read, “farm to fork” was literally the essence of what my upcoming trip was all about.

Fast forward two days. Groceries were now the last thing on my mind as I sat in a cosy train carriage on a beautiful British Autumn day, with the English countryside zipping past ablaze in Essex gold, reds and greens. I’d left Singapore the previous night, awash with worry; two of the kids, not long back at school, were plagued with sickness, our new helper had only just joined us and Jonny was away. This trifecta for working mother’s anxiety peaked as my plane left Changi, and my jet-lagged mood was now starkly at odds with the golden day outside.

English countryside view

Against this backdrop, I certainly wasn’t expecting the instant mood uplift awaiting me at the little Essex station in the larger-than-life form of Paul Kelly. I describe him as one the happiest, most passionate and lively farmers/ entrepreneurs on the planet. Paul owns Springate Farm, nestled in the quintessential English countryside, but its fame isn’t so much the farm but its residents, the world-famous KellyBronze turkeys. 

KellyBronze turkeys are lauded by respected chefs like Delia SmithJamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay as the “Rolls Royce of turkeys”, but putting aside the well-known fans, I had wanted to meet Paul and get my hands on his famous turkeys for a long time. We had spoken regularly over a couple of years since I first heard about his amazing turkeys at trade missions and through his extensive media coverage and awards. Sadly, local food import laws here made it really difficult to bring truly free-range turkeys into Singapore, but my mission that Autumn day was to see for myself if these high-profile turkeys were as good as their reputation, before I tackled any import hurdles back in Singapore. 

Paul Kelly, KellyBronze Free-Range English Whole Turkey

The Fabulous Paul Kelly

MEET PAUL KELLY, THE TURKEY WHISPERER

I heard Paul before I saw him. “Welcome to the best place on earth”, he bellowed, as I glanced around to locate the man behind the voice. His bearhug came next, large enough to cloak my entire family. If his turkeys were half as impressive as the man himself, I think I was sold before we even reached his truck!   

A short drive later, we arrived at his picture-perfect farm, stopping in for a cuppa with his lovely wife, Marissa. This was a really happy, positive home, where the mood was fun, kind and caring which is exactly what I also felt about the farm where his KellyBronze turkeys (or his “feathered family”, as he refers to them) live.

Turkey farms are not known as pleasant places. A quick online search reveals how poor the conditions often are. As I was to see myself, the most striking difference for KellyBronze turkeys was the freedom they had to roam at will, like turkey super-models, on 8 acres of completely open, untouched woodland under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of Paul and his lovely team. These are truly “free-range” birds, untethered by coups and barns and allowed to enjoy the outdoors, natural food and fresh air all day long.

THE REAL SECRET TO GREAT CHRISTMAS TURKEY

Paul Kelly, KellyBronze Free-Range English Whole Turkey

Paul raises just one flock each year, with the breeding season underway very early in the year to ensure prime birds for Christmas. Feeding themselves from whatever nature provides in the woods, they can also dine ‘a-lá buffet’ on non-GMO, additive-free grain and fresh water troughs scattered throughout the acreage. Some gather or take shelter under the trees, but he’s provided them with large open paddocks in case they care for a little more cover. The only things missing here are a butler and a massage therapist!

Kelly’s connection to the land and passion for raising his feathered family is deeply personal; this was his grandad’s vocation when he started out with a small holding almost 50 years ago and it’s been in the family ever since. Paul’s attention to his flock is remarkable; he seems to know each turkey personally,  referring to them by nickname as we tour the woods where they live, pointing out little differences in each bird…the extra feathery ones, the bossy ones and the timid, the leaders and the lazy. He takes a few grain from a trough and chews it, eyes closed, “that’s lovely and fresh", he confirms with a slow nod.

Some of Paul’s farm team have been there since his grandfather’s time, so he’s got a deep sense of heritage and responsibility for his animals - he gauges what they eat, their mood, the weather conditions…they are honestly like his babies.

Paul Kelly of KellyBronze Turkeys and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver

With Jamie Oliver, one of his many chef fans

Ultimately, Paul’s goal each year is to produce juicy, nutritious, healthy, nasty-free turkeys for us to enjoy over the holiday season. His extraordinary attention to their welfare and happiness is, he believes, the secret sauce – a naturally raised and nourished animal that’s had as little human intervention as possible makes for the best food. But the proof is in the eating, as I experienced a few hours later when Marissa served up a divine family roast turkey in their garden, perfectly cooked in 2 hours without any fuss.

NOBODY WANTS TO SETTLE FOR THE SECOND BEST TURKEY IN THE WORLD!

I confess I’ve not always been a turkey fan, having been raised on the dry-and-overcooked variety many of us know from childhood, but that evening as we sat in his farm garden, I was in for a treat. This golden-crisped bird was rich, flavour packed, moist and completely divine. Honestly, I could almost taste nature itself or perhaps it was simply how old fashioned, free-range, completely natural turkey was always meant to taste.

This was a special evening during which I was so thankful for the privilege of spending such intimate time with the proud farming family behind KellyBronze – it’s a rare event in the food business but the all-important personal bond was formed, and I was absolutely sure that going to battle back in Singapore for the best turkeys in the world was more than worth it.   

As the train pulled away from Danbury station the next morning, the last thing I heard was Paul’s bellowing voice beyond the glass as he thanked me for taking the time to visit, promising he’d do whatever it took to get his turkeys to Singapore. Three months later, KellyBronze turkeys were on our website, right in time for Christmas. 

ONWARDS TO FERGUS HOWIE @WICKS MANOR FARM 🐷

Directions from KellyBronze Turkeys to Wicks Manor Pork

After such a memorable and personal experience, I took my seat and wondered how my next stop-off could possibly top the Kelly family (and their feathered members). I had little cause for concern, with the charming Fergus Howie of Wicks Manor Farm standing on the platform ready to start another epic day.  Unlike Paul, I’ve known Fergus for a long time – I’d been to Wicks Manor before when he became one of my first ever farmer suppliers. 

With my Singapore angst largely abated, I was very excited to catch up with Fergus to see how things were going. Fergus and his extended family have been farming and raising pigs for over 50 years, but very unusually, these guys also grow their own crops so they can feed the pigs to the standards they believe in. This is what makes his “farm to fork” brand genuinely authentic and 100% true. 

There's only one way to start a visit to Wicks Manor, and that's the essential big English breakfast with pots of tea and a good catch up with Fergus’s kids. This is a family business in the truest sense of the word, with the entire extended gang all deeply involved, from crop planting and farming, to the on-farm butchery and smokehouse, to sales and international marketing. 

Fergus Howie of Wicks Manor Pork with his family

Breakfast is served, Howie-style with Fergus and family

But unlike many pig farmers, Wicks Manor practices the farming recommended by Red Tractor, whereby the animals are reared at their own pace outdoors,  without additives, free to enjoy rooting, snuffling and the social interaction pigs are famous for. The pigs are not artificially plumped up before slaughter – this is old-fashioned farming, and only nature herself controls the clock dictating time from breeding to birth to slaughter. 

Fergus Howie, Sasha Conlan, Alan

Me with Fergus and Alan, the Pig Manager 

I don my so-stylish blue and white health and safety clothing, and we head out to walk the farm and visit the team. Fergus walks me over to their own glowing fields of barley which will soon be harvested to keep the pigs in fine food for the coming winter season; we talk about their diet and how he’s applying science to enable him to naturally optimise the quality of the food chain - in the case of Wicks Manor, it’s remarkably very short. 

His kids and their young cousins whizz past, looking the picture of contentment (not an electronic device in sight!) and disappear to feed the animals. I can’t resist the opportunity to join them. The simplicity and fun of seeing these happy animals devour their feed makes us all laugh – it’s truly something special to see! The mummy pigs don’t need to make room for their piglets, but space isn’t an issue.  It’s a huge open pen.

Sasha Conlan making sausages

Yes, I even made sausages! 

We talk as we walk over towards the butchery, where the pigs are turned into products (I even tried my hand at sausage making!). Every step in making Wicks Manor products takes place right here, on the farm. Fergus chats away, filling me in on his work advocating for slow farming and animal welfare. He shows me their recent investments in the butchery tech, and we stop by to have a chat with one of the Wicks Manor vets who oversees the health of the pigs and their babies; he shares lovely anecdotes about keeping the animals free of illness (lots of space is vital) and the best conditions for breeding (I’ll spare you the details...) and living a quality life.

The Howie Family, Wicks Manor Pork

Fergus and kids mucking about the farm

What I loved about spending time with Fergus or Paul was having the opportunity to understand the minute intricacies and dynamics of operating their sustainable farms. For example, Fergus explained how the unholy amounts of summer rainfall had impacted Wicks Manor as an arable crop farm (heavy rain is bad news as it reduces yield and new crops cannot be planted until the fields dry out). Paul had talked to me in great detail about food politics (as had Fergus) and the Brexit knock-on for KellyBronze as a deluge of cheap, factory-farmed turkeys are set to hit supermarket shelves from the USA. Campaigns are planned to explain the risks to consumers, and both men plan to be involved by using their respective public profiles. Fergus and Paul are both looking to international markets as a way to help mitigate any downturn in the UK economy, so we talked through these heady challenges and the knock-on for how the farms might scale up without impacting quality. 

Sustainable farmer suppliers like these guys are truly the salt of the earth.  They’re used to year-round hard graft that never lets up. Pig and turkey farming require very different management, but the best produce is without a doubt from the likes of Fergus and Paul who are obsessively passionate about giving animals the highest quality life possible. Both farmers love their food but there are no short-cuts to quality which is often no more than a meaningless slogan. They share an iron-clad belief that intensive farming, antibiotic use, high stress environments and cramped indoor conditions produce nothing but the lowest-grade, sub-nutritional shadows of real, authentic animal products.

My Own Secret Sauce

Sasha Conlan holding piglet at Wicks Manor Pork

As I headed on yet another train from Maldon to Scotland’s Inverawe Smokehouse to meet the fabulous producers of our popular smoked salmon and famous triple terrines, I savoured the importance of having these deep, personal bonds with my suppliers. Not only did I have the pleasure of meeting and eating with the farm families, I'd seen their animals in the most natural habitats, talked with the caring teams who look after them 24 x 7 and tasted the end products. It's why I know these turkeys and pork products are the finest on the market. 

Was this worth leaving my sick kids for? Well, that part will never sit well with me but it was the right thing to do for my customers if I was to continue standing behind our gourmet meats and groceries and our unique story of genuinely knowing and trusting our suppliers. That’s my own secret sauce for Sasha’s Fine Foods.

 

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