Judd Culver is taking on the first North American operation of England’s KellyBronze company, the largest grower of organic turkeys in Britain, on a 100-acre farm in Greenwood. It now is raising 1,300 birds there according to the firm’s “bred to be wild” motto. That means outdoors on pasture behind a stout woven-wire stock fence reinforced with three strategically placed strands of electrified wire that are sure to discourage predators looking for a Thanksgiving meal. Aside from the several waterers and feeders placed around the farm’s first 16-acre field, it’s as close as the turkey industry gets to raising birds in their natural environment.
KellyBronze founder Paul Kelly visited the farm recently to advise on the construction of a steel-frame building that will house the processing operation. The turkeys will be dry-plucked and aged to be ready for Thanksgiving buyers. In England, Kelly said, the style is called “New York dressed” because the technique originated there, but it is no longer common in the U.S. Kelly holds the Guiness Book of World Records title as the globe’s fastest dry-plucker and also the fastest dresser of a turkey. No water is involved in the dressing of Kelly turkey and their birds are also not soaked in brine.
“The benefit is you can hang it [to age] and that makes all the difference,” said Kelly. “It’s the best tasting turkey in the world. Quality wins. Once they have it, people do not go back [to industrial-style turkeys]. Plain roast with salt and pepper. It upsets me as a turkey farmer when people say a turkey is dry.
“Ours are six months old. They’re mature. A standard American turkey is processed at 14 weeks old. We get to the fat storage stage of the turkey’s development. That’s the last stage of development. Good taste comes with maturity. Fat conducts heat better in cooking. Our turkeys have only a two-hour cook time.” Each bird is sold with a cooking thermometer so the customer can see when the bird is done. Without the thermometer included, Kelly found that some customers overcooked their turkeys on the assumption they required longer. “The thermometer doesn’t lie,” said Kelly. “It’s like turkeys tasted 50 years ago.”
So far all but 200 of the birds in this inaugural flock have been sold. Dressed birds will weigh about 14 pounds. Culver has a few males in the flock to meet demand from customers who want larger birds, but he would prefer not to have the males and females mixed, because the Kelly turkeys are raised to the natural mature stage, at which point the males can lose weight when their attention turns to reproduction.
Culver’s turkeys will literally walk from their pasture to the processing barn, living their entire lives comfortable on the farm where they were born. “It’s a lovely way of farming turkeys,” Kelly said. The birds, spread out and moving leisurely, show they feel secure and content in their home. Culver said he has had some curiosity from foxes and he is aware of other predators, such as coyotes, but so far his fencing has kept them out.
Americans consume about 60 million turkey for the holidays, according to Culver, who is an expert in animal nutrition and has prepared his own feed recipe, mainly corn and soybeans, for his flock. Culver met Kelly when his career took him to Britain for a few years and he called at the Kelly farm to sell turkey rations.
“We’ve been looking at the American market since 2001,” said Kelly. “I know lots of turkey guys, but they all have the volume mentality. You have to have a totally different mindset. Judd wanted to do it and he’s so passionate. He has all the experience you need and the drive. The same thing happened for us in Scotland.”
Once the farm is settled in, Kelly expects it to be a place other American farmers can visit to observe the concept. Kelly said the company is also looking for an Australian farm.
The Greenwood farm has capacity for 10,000 to 15,000 turkeys per year and the plan is to double the bird population every year until it reaches its limit.
This is Kelly‘s fourth visit to the U.S. Earlier trips were about test marketing. “We had to find out if there is a market for a $200 turkey,” he said. “We got great feedback. It’s a big investment and it comes down to having the right people.”
Kelly scoured the British Isles in 1984 searching for remnant flocks of bronze turkeys, which mainly look black but have a bronze color on the tips of their feathers. “They were going extinct,” Kelly explained. “We combined what we found and created five families that we maintain as pure lines and then we cross breed those. 1987 and ’88 were very hard for us, but we got in the news and then butchers started calling us saying their customers wanted our turkeys. It was through the media that we got rolling. Of course, there’s always a challenge, but it’s exciting and fun.”