Downsized turkeys on the cards as Christmas gatherings shrink

Talking turkey: smaller birds may be on the cards this Christmas Picture: SIMON WALKER

Talking turkey: smaller birds may be on the cards this Christmas Picture: SIMON WALKER - Credit: Simon Walker

East Anglian turkey producers are battling to adjust to the new realities of a Covid Christmas as the traditional feast is downsized.

Will we be looking at smaller turkeys on Christmas Day? Picture: NSPHOTOSTUDIO

Will we be looking at smaller turkeys on Christmas Day? Picture: NSPHOTOSTUDIO - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With smaller gatherings on the cards in response to a new spike in coronavirus cases in the UK and the government’s “rule of six”, farmers are bracing themselves for householders wanting to rein in their annual festivities with smaller birds.

With turkey poults already bought and being fattened, they are looking at ways to cater for the new realities, following prime minister Boris Johnson’s warning of a long haul back to normality.

MORE – Fruit firm snaps up neighbouring strawberry-growing businessDay-old poults arrive on farms in June to August so they can be reared in time for Christmas. There are some smaller breeds but producers will have to work with what they have – and the birds tend to grow quite large within a range of weights.

One north Suffolk producer is looking at promoting ‘crowns’ – where legs and thighs are removed to create a smaller roast – for customers worried they may be biting off more than they can chew. Meanwhile, one Essex farmer is planning to trial ‘half turkeys’, having successfully done so for geese.

Chris Mobbs with his turkeys Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Chris Mobbs with his turkeys Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

But producers – including premium turkey supremo Paul Kelly of Kelly Turkeys – will also be promoting the “good value” represented by a large bird.

“If only six sit down for dinner, then around four servings are available for meals over the weekend. Big, wholesome pies are the answer,” said Paul.

And with the usual festive exodus of around £4m to £5m UK citizens heading to warmer climes now curtailed by the crisis and an exceptionally long Christmas weekend as Christmas Day falls on Friday this year, producers are hoping that big turkeys may still be in big demand as householders batten down at home.

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Chris Mobbs of traditional turkey producers PA Mobbs of Cratfield, near Halesworth, is rearing around 3,500 turkeys for the festive season.

Consumers may well be on the lookout for smaller turkeys this Christmas, turkey farmers believe Pic

Consumers may well be on the lookout for smaller turkeys this Christmas, turkey farmers believe Picture: JOHN KERR

With butchers enjoying exceptionally good business this year because of lockdown and a heightened awareness of local food, he is hopeful big turkeys will still sell well among domestic consumers. However, he is concerned about some of his business customers.

Many of these have been buying large quantities of his birds as a festive treat for their employees for decades - but with a downturn on the cards, that market will be unpredictable.

Catering customers have picked up considerably since lockdown eased and provided hospitality venues stay open, he hopes their custom will continue.

“We are all going into the unknown really,” he said. “Obviously we are expecting there to be a lot more small turkeys sold.”

Howard Blackwell and his son George at Blackwells Farm Shop, Coggeshal Picture: ANDREW PARTRIDGE

Howard Blackwell and his son George at Blackwells Farm Shop, Coggeshal Picture: ANDREW PARTRIDGE - Credit: Andrew Partridge

But with these available in limited numbers, the larger birds will be the only option, he said. However, back in spring as the crisis unfolded, he – like many other producers – cut back on turkey numbers this season. This is likely to mean fewer birds available – which may boost demand.

Chris is already fielding sales inquiries but is unsure whether they have been prompted by Boris Johnson’s latest announcement on coronavirus or a change in the weather.

His other headache this year will be availability of seasonal labour. Chris employs a Latvian couple all year round and around eight or nine Latvian workers are already booked on flights to join them in the run-up to Christmas when – with luck – the orders will come flooding in. The question will be whether there is a tightening of travel restrictions in November.

Howard Blackwell – who owns the Rare Breed Meat Company in Coggeshall, north Essex, which he runs with son George – faces similar worries about labour in the run-up to the festive season. They rely on about half a dozen Polish seasonal workers to supplement their local workforce in the weeks before the big day.

The Blackwells are rearing around 5,500 birds, and employ around 40 to 45 staff across farm shop and butchery business, and have taken on around five or six extra staff this year in response to higher demand for their range of chicken, geese, beef, lamb, pork, goat and game products. These are sold locally and into high-end London-based restaurants and catering businesses. He’s still struggling to keep up with demand, he said.

“Since they’ve opened up they’ve been mega-busy – we have had a job to keep up with it,” he admitted.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. After lockdown, he faced big losses from restaurants and other customers who were unable to pay or went bust. But he hopes that Christmas will provide a boost.

“I think it’s going to be good. I don’t think people are going to be going to restaurants and hotels and getting an inferior product that’s imported. People aren’t going to be away on holiday,” he said.

“There’s definitely been more of a swing towards small butchers because we supply small butchers in London and trade is up 20%.”

The company already produces half turkeys for tastings so this may well be the answer for some customers seeking smaller portions this year, he believes.