For Mark Gorton, founder and managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, the busiest time of the year is almost here.
Christmas is coming, and this year the business will supply 300,000 free-range turkeys into supermarket premium lines, up significantly from the 250,000 produced last year. Through the rest of the year the firm processes 85,000 chickens a week.
November, he says, is the ‘eye of the hurricane’, when all the turkeys are on the ground, foraging in the 60 woodland farms scattered around East Anglia that feed into TNP’s 35,000 sq ft processing plant in the Norfolk village of Attleborough that was built in 2003.
“Everything is geared up now for when we start processing turkeys on 22 November, which is when the hurricane hits the land,” he says.
Business is healthy for TNP, which was founded in 1988 and has grown steadily over the years picking up new supermarket contracts and gradually introducing exclusively grown products, such as the Norfolk Black chicken, which was developed especially for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range.
In June, TNP was awarded Grower of the Year in the National Egg & Poultry Awards for its work in developing new products for retailers and was also shortlisted for Processor of the Year in recognition of its significant investment and expansion of its processing facilities, including a £1 million investment in a Meyn Gas stunning system.
TNP was the first in the UK to have this new system, which is a multi-stage carbon dioxide system which has delivered several efficiencies such as reduced maturation time, higher yield, no haemorrhaging and reduced wing damage.
“That is going fantastically well. Another huge investment but that does a brilliant job and fits in well with our overall ethos,” says Gorton.
Right now, Christmas preparation is in full swing. From the start of October, the company starts bringing in more staff to get them trained up for peak production. “All of the equipment and production facilities is being brought out of storage and put into position for the oncoming season,” he says.
“There is a huge amount of work that goes into preparation and every tiny little detail from trussing bands to wellington boots to extra skips, everything is gearing up now for when we start processing turkeys on 22 November. That date doesn’t change, it can’t change, and we start at full speed. We hit the ground running.”
It’s clear Gorton loves this part of the year, despite the challenges. “There are two difficult parts,” he says. “The first part is to get your turkeys in the right condition, so they are ready for processing and if we can provide the factory with the best quality turkeys it makes that job much easier.
“We are very good at doing that. We let the turkeys grow naturally. It is a nice way to do it because we are trying to produce the best product, we don’t want to cut any corners. We want customers to have their Christmas dinner and say that was fantastic, I want another one next year.
“The other hard thing is to get the turkeys through the factory and get them into every last customer and every last depot.”
Gorton considers himself ‘predominantly a farmer’ and finds it satisfying his products are used for the supermarkets’ premium lines.
“It is fantastic for me to indulge my passion for growing these birds and to come up with different ideas, different feeds, different breeds to give our customers something different to what everyone else can do,” he says.
“We like to give our customers exclusivity if they want it. There is the Norfolk Bronze turkey which is the baseline standard if you like. But then we have a number of customers who have their own, Sainsbury’s has the Norfolk Black, Tesco has the Narragansett, and then this year we have got some other exciting new products coming out. Sometimes you’re talking about very small numbers but it’s just about giving someone something exclusive.”
When Christmas production starts on 22 November, there is no room for error. The factory runs at full capacity, on double shifts, seven days a week. “We actually process for 16 hours a day, but then when we’re not processing we’re in cleaning and preparing the factory for the next day, so it is a 24-hour operation. We double in staff so we have probably 400 staff across the site,” he says.
The farming side becomes easier during this period because farms are being depopulated and from then on are cleaned down, mucked out, sanitised and stood down.
The Christmas distribution and logistics exercise takes place over three days on 17, 18 and 19 December getting turkeys delivered all over the UK from the furthest point in Scotland to Cornwall, through to Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Delivering these turkeys in such a short period of time is a massive undertaking,” says Gorton. “There are literally thousands of pallets of turkeys going out across hundreds of lorries. Our role in that is getting the turkeys to the retailers nearest distribution hubs, which is still no small undertaking. You have to hit your slot and that is probably the most manic, busiest time.”
Despite the organised chaos, it’s clear Gorton is in his element. “Yes, I get a real buzz,” he says. “You spend all year gearing up for it and, I wouldn’t say the excitement is the right word, but the anticipation builds and you get to a couple of weeks before when you start processing and you want to get going, and then once you get into it is like a big adrenaline trip where there is just so much going on. As a business owner it is fantastic to see everything working at its absolute peak and its maximum which is what we should be doing.”
There are however, some clouds on the horizon. Brexit is proving challenging for TNP because 75% of its workforce is from EU countries.
“People say to me, how will Brexit affect your business?” says Gorton. “Well it’s already started affecting us. Staff is the biggest challenge without a shadow of a doubt and ever since the vote it’s just got worse and worse and worse.
“People are still going to want to eat, obviously. And they are still going to want to eat high welfare, premium products year-round, especially at Christmas. I’m not worried there’s going to be a downturn in that respect, but I am worried about being able to find the staff to operate our farms and our factory and that is a real concern, one that is shared across the industry.
“The very next day after the vote we lost three people and the reason they went was they decided they wouldn’t be wanted in the UK. And since then it’s got worse. So, the fact they feel they’re not wanted in the UK and the devaluation in the pound, which means every pound they earn and send back to their families is worth 25% less than before the vote, the attraction of working in the UK becomes less.”
Finding a local workforce is simply out of the question, says Gorton. “They are just not there,” he says. “When we first set this business up 30 years ago we used to have locals and I still know them, and we chat. But those days are long gone.”
Local people now do not want the jobs, he says. “I think it’s difficult work,” he acknowledges. “It’s long hours. There are possibly easier ways arguably they can earn their money. They’ve got to work hard. There is no denying it’s hard work. And of course, with the factory, with farming, with livestock, it’s seven days a week. I’ve got catching teams working through the night, hygiene teams working in the factory in the night. There is weekend work. The work ethic is gone unfortunately.”
Some people suggest if the pay was high enough, local people would do the work. Gorton disagrees. “I think if I doubled my wages it still wouldn’t work. It’s about the work ethic. If I went out and said right I’m no longer going to pay minimum wage I’m going to pay £15 I’d get some people come along and they’d do a few hours, some of them might even work a day, and then the next day they would all start to fall away.”
Gorton is becoming increasingly frustrated at the attitude of politicians, who appear to show little sympathy to the future viability of so many food businesses, especially in light of the government’s decision to adopt the recommendations of the Migratory Advisory Committee, which wants to stop anyone coming to the UK after Brexit who earns under £30,000.
“We are doing everything we can to lobby our MPs to say look, this is a problem, and I’m sure they’ve all got that message. And yes, they’re listening to us but they’re not acting on it. It’s not just across farming and food production, it’s across all sectors. Lorry drivers that come and deliver to this factory, half of them are eastern Europeans and all the hospitals and service sectors as well. And of course, we’re working in a climate where unemployment is at the lowest it’s been in decades so it’s not as if there is a labour force out there looking for work, because they’re not.”
Although he might feel powerless over Brexit, there is another area where he is seizing control in order to continue growing the business.
TNP has launched a campaign to recruit East Anglian farmers who want to diversify into poultry. TNP currently sources poultry from 60 different sites across the region, and 25% of those are independent producers growing under contract.
In a bid to find more farmers who want to grow poultry for TNP, Gorton attended the Cereals event earlier this year to try and tempt arable farmers.
“Without flogging the Brexit horse, they can see we’re coming into uncertain times, it is clear subsidies are going to change. So, diversification is the name of the game,” he says. “The poultry industry is well known as being highly efficient, profitable, and most farmers know someone who has diversified into poultry and is doing alright at it. So, what we’re offering is a nice way to grow poultry but is still giving farmers the same or better returns than other types of poultry. It’s really exciting and we have now got some farmers already signed up and ready to push on with it, so hopefully they will come on stream next year, planning pending.”
Looking ahead, Gorton says his ambitions are fairly boring. “More of the same,” is how he describes his plans for the future. “We are specialised in what we do and the market is still growing,” he says.
He is planning to experiment with added-value products though, something TNP hasn’t tried before, focussing on whole birds and cuts. He thinks there is an opportunity to produce ready-meals made with organic poultry, that would appeal to consumers just starting to shop for themselves, who were perhaps raised on organic baby food.
“The reason why free-range and organic is growing in popularity is a new generation of shopper coming through who has been brought up with it. That person has the same pressures on their time as everyone else when it comes to knocking up something quick in the evening, so I see the next stage as higher welfare into added value, ready meals. We are already seeing one or two people starting to talk about it, and for people who buy organic chicken, why wouldn’t they buy an organic ready meal?
“We are looking at it, we have started to develop various products and I see that as an area to exploit and explore going forward,” he says.