US Thanksgiving Next Big Challenge for KellyBronze Turkey

UK - The purchase of a farm in Virginia to scale up production of KellyBronze turkeys for the US Thanksgiving market was announced by Paul Kelly at a 30th birthday celebration for the product at Danbury, Essex.
calendar icon 7 August 2014
clock icon 7 minute read

Three generations of the Kelly family –
from left Paul, daughters India and Ella, his wife Marissa and father Derek

Derek Kelly welcoming guests to the woodland setting at Danbury

The KellyBronze, the trendsetting traditional bronze turkey in the UK, has been test marketed in Virginia over the past two years and the 1000 in production for this November have already been sold.

The American market is dominated by cheap frozen turkeys and the challenge for the Kelly family is to create a niche market.

"I know all the industry big players out there, and they think we’re mad," he told more than 70 guests at a woodland venue surrounded by eight-week-old turkeys. "They say ‘Turkeys are a dollar a pound. Get over it. You’re trying to sell a turkey at ten dollars a pound. It’s not going to happen no matter how good it tastes.’

"I don’t really get that because the sales of fine wine and champagne go through the roof at Thanksgiving in the US and they sell 60 million turkeys there. So we just want a tiny weenie bit of it for those people that want something very special and genuinely better for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s going to be really exciting."

The 106-acre farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has pasture and woodland for rearing the turkeys, and a small processing plant will be built on site to dry pluck, hang and prepare the turkeys in the way KellyBronze birds are produced in the UK.

Looking to the future in the UK he said that wild woodland production would be replacing much of the normal free range, with increasing emphasis on eating quality.

"We probably eat more turkey than anyone else in the world, I would imagine, day in and day out. With our breeding programme it’s all about eating quality," he said. "You’ve got to find families that produce great eating quality and that’s a hell of a challenge. A few years ago we got rid of two pure lines that were continually tough, and didn’t eat very well and that’s sacrilege to a turkey breeder. You just don’t get rid of pure lines!"

He also spoke about the increasing importance of internet sales and their franchising KellyBronze Farmers scheme, alongside expanding local farmgate trade which accounts for 1900 turkeys at Christmas.

"We ‘re thinking of doing more days like this, bringing people down to the woodland," he told the food trade guests, suppliers, customers, local farmers and friends among the gathering seated on straw bales. "Free range is a bit passé now, and it’s not until you get people to come down here to take a walk on the wild side and experience this for themselves that they see exactly what I expect."

KellyBronze – the first 30 years

The KellyBronze has become over the past 30 years the most celebrated Christmas turkey, first choice for a premium traditional bird. But it might never have got off the ground if the Kelly family had heeded the remarks of some early customers.

Retailing surplus turkeys from the Kelly’s rare breed collection a local Essex butcher, John Vale of Little Baddow, sparked the interest in reviving the bronze-feathered birds. He remarked how his customers had been particularly impressed by their rather special flavour.

Not all butchers agreed! They didn’t welcome seeing black feather stubs in the flesh again. By the 1980s customers had got used to the pristine finish of the white-feathered strains, introduced in the decades before and coming to dominate the market.

Derek Kelly and his son Paul, who had recently come into the business, saw the black stubs left in the flesh as a positive — a natural brand mark of a truly traditional product. And eventually that’s how they came to be seen by butchers, consumers and the celebrity chefs who have become so influential in the food business.

There was another challenge in the early years. It wasn’t easy to supply the market with bronze-feathered turkeys in commercial quantities. Their rare breeds collection sourced stock renowned for its eating quality from Oregon on the US west coast. But there were at the time only a few other breeders with any bronze turkeys and when Derek Kelly approached them, they wondered why on earth should he be interested in this outmoded stock at all.

At the start, their only real competition was from the Norfolk Black which continues to enjoy a cult following. Then other breeders and producers started getting in on the act, simply breeding bronze feathers into their commercial strains.

The challenge was to differentiate the Kelly product. The name KellyBronze was chosen, coming to mean much more than just the breed but the whole production process. The phrase ‘Bred to be wild’ was coined — ahead of its time before the popularity of free range.

The breeding is important — and the KellyBronze is the only breed with both male and female bronze lines — but so too is the rearing, feeding, processing and marketing. All designed to guarantee the consumer a top quality turkey with all the traditional virtues.

The KellyBronze distinctive quality has been recognised by a host of national food accolades – in particular gaining the top award for a traditional turkey five years running at the prestigious British Turkey Awards. KellyBronze has twice won the Taste of Excellent Award from the Pig & Poultry Marketing journal.

It is this emphasis on flavour that Paul Kelly believes is so important. "It is no coincidence that our breeds have won quality awards so often," he said. "There are big differences in breeding lines and we have a unique programme to select breeding stock that eats superbly.

Paul’s mother Mollie has been in the forefront of helping consumers make the most of turkey – famed for her advice on roasting a turkey upside down so the fat trickles down through the breast meat. The KellyBronze Turkey Cookbook featuring 25 of her favourite recipes was launched at the 25th anniversary event. Sadly, she died six months later aged 80.

Investment in the breeding programme and in the overall business continues to grow. Over the past five years £800,000 has been spent in developing the breeding capacity of pedigree farms in Ayrshire and East Anglia, and in a new pedigree hatchery a Danbury opened last year.

Around the UK locally grown KellyBronze is also available through franchise producers — the KellyBronze Farmers. The scheme was devised in the 1990s and brings local supplies to consumers from Fife to Kent, and from East Anglia to South Wales. The franchisees are situated close to population centres, usually with main road frontage for displaying the eye-catching turkey built of round straw bales.

The reputation of the KellyBronze is continuing to grow in a number of European countries. Kelly’s German partners, Freiland Puten Fahrenzhausen, supply delicatessens and gourmet butchers in Germany and Austria and have won awards at major food shows including Europe’s largest organic food exhibition in Nuremberg.

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