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Talking turkey: a ‘crazy time’ of year as farmers prepare for festive feasts

Turkey farmers have been busy getting ready for Christmas dinners for several weeks now

“Fintan can’t come to the phone now; he’s up to his elbows in feathers,” says the voice on the end of the call to Hogan’s Turkey Farm in Kells, Co Meath.

When the owner of the family farm can eventually talk turkey, he is frazzled by what he describes as the demands of “a crazy time”.

In the days ahead, Hogan’s farm will process about 70,000 turkeys destined for supermarket shelves and butcher’s shops before playing a starring role on Christmas dinner tables across the country. And while moaning about turkey is a national pastime, the birds remain enduringly popular.

According to Bord Bia, about 1.5 million birds were sold last year, with 90 per cent processed for Christmas at a cost to Irish consumers that Kantar puts at about €15 million.


“This is the way it is in our business, it is always a crazy time no matter what way things fall,” Hogan said.

The 5-7kg birds he produces are by far the most popular, although he points out that the bigger the bird the better the value. “The bone-to-meat ratio improves as the bird gets bigger.”

In essence, that means that the bones on a 5kg bird will be the same size as those in an 8kg bird, so the extra 3kg you pay for will be all meat.

For Hogan, the killing season starts at the end of November, with the process largely automated now. He recalls when his family would hand-pluck turkeys and sell them ‘New York-dressed’, which means “sold with the guts inside and the feet and head still on” – a common sight in shops in the 1980s.

“Back then, the killing started on December 13th because the turkeys wouldn’t last fresh until after Christmas,” he said. “Now we have to have all our slaughtering done before the 13th to give us a chance to get the turkeys out on time.”

Although turkey remains popular, tastes are shifting.

“A lot of the younger generation don’t want the whole turkey and prefer breast meat or crowns. There are a lot of people who don’t want the turkey legs,” he said.

There is no question what will be on the table in Pierce McKevitt’s house this Christmas. Aged just 19, he has been a turkey farmer for nine years, having started out with 24 birds on Co Louth land given to him by his grandfather.

“My grandfather gave me the land and I noticed there was no one doing turkeys in Omeath where I live. There was a market for free-range turkeys and it took off straight away,” he said.

In 2015, he doubled his flock to 48 and this year he will sell more than 100 turkeys.

“We’re in the final stages and they’ll be processed next week and are as big as they are going to get,” he said.

His free-range turkeys are in the 12- to 24-pound (5.4kg to 10.8kg) bracket. Being free-ranger, his turkeys eat whatever they can get, and that makes them moister and “very succulent”, McKevitt said.

“I also have stag turkeys that are 36 pounds,” he said. “They are one beast of a turkey.”

Asked who would consume such a large bird at Christmas, he said: “There are some big families around us who will eat turkey from Christmas to new year’s so there is no waste.”

He buys his birds in August and sells them in December. Once the season is over, he cleans out the sheds and brings in about 50 lambs. Year round he keeps chickens and sells eggs.

“I will start delivering from December 20th and will be delivering until 8pm on Christmas Eve,” he said. “I like meeting the customers and making sure they are happy.”

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Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast