It’s a cold winter’s morning in the west Tipperary countryside and a sparrow hawk makes an appearance low in the clear sky. Immediately, a few hundred turkeys take a break from their foraging to collectively rush towards the invader, shouting their warnings before the hawk has second thoughts and heads for the hills, leaving the turkeys to resume free-range life.
An idyllic existence, in some ways, if it weren’t for the knowledge of what’s on the menu, so to speak, for these birds and their counterparts before too long.
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without turkey and ham,” TJ Crowe says with a smile.
The Crowes got into the turkey business five or six years ago for logical reasons.
“We were doing hams all our lives and we’d have customers coming to us every single December for their Christmas ham,” says TJ. “It was nearly a natural progression.”
Many of those clients wouldn’t be heard from for 51 weeks of the year but return year in, year out for their Christmas meat.
The turkey trade started with 150 birds at the beginning of the decade, but by now about 3,500 make Crowe’s Farm outside Dundrum in west Tipperary their home from mid-year until, well, this time of year.
Based in large sheds, they are free to wander in and out to the fields from dawn to dusk, foraging around their own five and a half acre section of the farm. This freedom, and their chemical-free feed, makes them free range, organic turkeys of the bronze variety. That’s the breed, not the colour, although many do develop that tinge on their feathers.
“The bronze is an old, traditional breed of turkey,” John Paul Crowe explains.
“They come in as day-old chicks from the hatchery in the UK.
“For the first five weeks they’re kept inside, in a heated environment to mimic the mother hen. Then we let them out and they start to roam from that stage.”
Loud they may be, but their bark (or gobble) is worse than their bite and they are happy enough to let the Crowes busy themselves in their vicinity, without much hint of aggression.
“Maybe they wouldn’t be so placid if they knew what was coming…”
Many commercial turkey growers let their birds have a life span of about 16 weeks, by which time they are fully grown and mature, but on Crowe’s farm they live for 22 weeks before the inevitable intervenes.
“It gives them a fuller flavour.”
By the time you’re reading this, the process of getting the turkeys from farm nearer the fork is well under way, with many local young men and women drafted in to help with the job of hand-placing the turkeys on the trucks which will bring them to meet their maker in Kells in Co Meath. Next year the family farm will have its own abattoir.
“Last year we had a right crew and we loaded them up very quickly,” TJ recalls. “You have to catch them one by one.”
Loading for the “kill” and despatching the turkeys takes a few days and nights, and then the turkeys come back to Dundrum when the orders can be sorted.
Crowes supply several butcher shops, several restaurants, their own farm shop, and many individual customers. Orders or placed online or by telephone and each turkey sent to the table with a unique certificate.
“By December 22 and 23 there would be a queue out the gate. Nearly everyone wants to get theirs at the last minute and just as Christmas is starting for them, we’re wrecked.”
With up to 150 pigs on the farm at any one time — remember those hams — and also a herd of suckler cattle, there’s rarely a dull moment.
“The cattle start calving in January so you just have a week or two break and start the whole business then again.”
The brothers — Ned and Pa as well as TJ and John Paul — took over the farm when their father, John Crowe, died 17 years ago and there are now at least a dozen working in the business, some of them for many years.
Do they have any qualms about sending the turkeys off to be slaughtered after spending almost six months in their company?
No. “It’s strictly business,” TJ says.
“At the time you’re just busy with the loading,” John Paul adds. “It’s the next day that you really notice it, when you go out to the shed and it’s silent.”
The silence of the turkeys.
“I live just up there,” TJ points towards the fields, “and every morning you come out and hear the turkeys but the next day [after they’ve left] you come out and hear the silence.”
Both men have children and John Paul says that “the kids are often more up front than the parents” about the process and its endgame.
“There’s no point in hiding the fact, it’s a business at the end of the day,” as TJ puts it. “We give them the best possible lives they could have, we’re happy with that.”
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