Turkey producer Paul Kelly recounts the difficulties of operating in an AI zone in the key trading period for turkey
In all of the 40 years I’ve been in the Christmas turkey business I can confidently say 2021 was the one when I lost the most sleep.
It was the perfect storm: Brexit and labour shortages, combined with the explosion of Omicron made securing the arrival of our team from Poland a nail-biting experience over a few days. Then on top of that we had the arrival of bird flu on our doorstep in Essex on 21 November.
We were 22% short on our labour requirements – even with the visa scheme that the government passed on the last weekend in September.
The simple fact is the bureaucracy and cost involved in getting people on to the scheme is a barrier to attracting the best workers. They can get work anywhere in Europe, so why bother with all the hassle?
Of course, the visa scheme does not restrict us to Europe – but the costs of travel and the reduction in travel solutions outside of Europe due to Covid made this almost prohibitive given the four weeks of work we have to spread the costs over.
Our team for Christmas 2020 very nearly did not get home. The coaches we’d organised to leave us on the 19 were on the very last ferry to France before the borders were closed. It was an extremely close call which brought with it a lot of nervousness for Christmas 2021. The questions racing around my head were:
Are we going to have any outbreaks in the plant that will lead to isolation and exacerbate our labour shortage?
Will some of the team not want to risk the borders closing and simply pack their bags and go?
Luckily neither of these scenarios actually played out.
And then on 21 November we had a H5N1 confirmed just seven miles away from our processing facility. I almost laughed and pinched myself to check I was not dreaming!
This was the final nail in the coffin that turned my normal optimism into thoughts of ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ The past 40 years of building a business could be swept away.
Two days before we had had internal meetings to get our level 1 and level 2 permits in place so we could move birds for slaughter that were in the Surveillance Zone. This suddenly became even more urgent on the 21 November as we had 27,000 birds in the Surveillance Zone that we couldn’t move. Our whole kill programme was re-worked with only eight days’ work ahead of us if we couldn’t get our level 1 status in place and movement licences issued.
Hats off to the APHA! They were great. While things didn’t move at the pace I would normally like to push things along at, they were incredibly helpful in getting the paperwork in place to get our plant licensed and getting the movement licences in place.
With just three hours to go before we ran out of work, we had the movement licences issued. It was very, very scary.
But sales were great, and up on 2020.
It was a Christmas I will never forget and one that focuses the mind on the risk-reward equation. This past year it certainly was not balanced!