Chicken run: what's the secret to a happy farm?
“Happy birds taste better,” says Nick Ball. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Independent farmers Nick Ball and Jacob Sykes run Fosse Meadows farm in Leicestershire which specialises in slow-grown chickens, geese and turkeys.
Tue 30 May 2017
Fosse Meadows are one of Farmdrop’s independent suppliers and Nick shares the secrets to running a happy farm - for the birds and for the farmers - with Nigel Akehurst.
How did you set up Fosse Meadows?
It all started seven years ago. We gave up our city jobs (I was a fashion designer and Jacob was a property developer) and together we set up the chicken farm on my dad’s farm for six years. We then moved to the council farm here near Lutterworth about a year ago so it’s an independent business with family ties and links.
What made you want to leave your city jobs?
We started the company because of our love of good food. I’m a fourth generation farmer so it ticked lots of boxes for both of us. We wanted to do something out of the norm – something that will keep us working 12 hours a day seven days a week for a long time.
You produce chickens, geese and turkeys - how do you rear them differently?
At Fosse Meadows we grow our birds for longer than organic standards. We give them a natural, no additive feed and we don’t add in antibiotics (unless there’s a rare illness). We use chicks from France which have a much more elongated breast and bigger legs – this means they roam further and you get much better quality meat. Because they can roam, they’re not these short little legged chickens with enormous breasts which can’t really move anywhere, which is what you find in the supermarkets.
How do you raise happy birds?
There are no fences – our birds can go where they like. They like a hedge! They have as much outside roaming space as they want and they get that from morning to dusk. We also grow our birds for longer than most organic systems. We use non-organic certified feed and straw bedding as it wouldn’t be economically viable to do otherwise on the scale we’re at but our farming practices are the same as organic in every other way in that we have small flocks, moveable sheds, and we don’t put any fertilisers or pesticides onto the grass.
How different do your chickens taste from supermarket birds?
We use a different bird for a start. We’re using a slow growing bird, which means they roam further and they don’t just sit and eat all day. They sit, eat, drink, get up, walk around, go outside and sit in the sunshine. Your supermarket free range chickens won’t be doing these things because their legs aren’t strong enough. The supermarkets will have plenty to say to make out the opposite – that they do have strong enough legs and they’ll have passed all the tests. They will have slow growing breeds which are designed to grow a day longer than their normal birds on the basis that as it is a day older they can call it a slow grown bird under the legal limit.
In terms of end taste, with our birds you’ll get a much thicker skin and you’ll have a much better fat content and there will be lots of flavour in that fat. We’re trying to emulate the great Label Rouge chicken of France, known for their great chicken practices. When our customers finish eating our chicken and decide to make some stock or broth they notice that the bones are much stronger – they’ve developed and so you can’t just snap them in your fingers – which means there’s more nutrients and minerals in those bones, which gives a much better stock and a lovely jelly. The meat is also totally different. It’s a lot firmer and has more structure. You need less meat to fill you up compared to supermarket chicken.
Tell us a little about your turkeys and geese…
Our turkeys are slow-growing birds grown for six months – this is about twice as long as the turkeys sold at supermarkets at Christmas time. With our birds you get a great fat content that runs through the meat so it stays lovely and succulent. None of this dry turkey! The breed is a Bronze bird (they come from the breeders Farmgate Hatcheries) and they are the same birds as a Kelly Bronze which are based on the American wild turkey.
They are kind of a special occasion thing. Again slow-grown, additive-free and reared on home grown wheat and grass. With it’s rich, dark meat, they’re a little like the cows of the bird world.
How does working Farmdrop help you as a small independent farmer?
It gives us another outlet to reach a wider audience rather than just our farmers’ markets. We’re right behind the ethos of supporting the artisan farmer. Farmdrop are selective in who they work with and it’s a transparent business – you know what you’re getting as a customer and as a producer too. We also love being able to sell online. Although it sounds simple, doing this ourselves would be a huge amount of work and cost on top of doing everything else on the farm. Farmdrop makes it really simple for us to get our products direct to customers who want that level of convenience with confidence in the produce they eat.
We heard you sing to your turkeys to make them happier…
We’ll talk to the turkeys and we’ll talk to the geese – because they’ll respond. They like to be talked to and the turkeys talk back. Chickens don’t seem too bothered either way!
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