Producing organic chickens for Moy Park has allowed Northern Ireland poultry farmers Joel and Sinton Kerr to maintain the highest welfare standards for their birds, while ensuring the family farm remains profitable and sustainable for the future.
For third-generation farmer Joel Kerr and his parents, Sinton and Allison, quality has always been at the heart of their family’s operations.
Producing 30,000 organic birds along with a small herd of pedigree cattle and sheep across their 32-hectare (80-acre) farm in Dungannon, County Tyrone, the Kerrs focus on producing high-
welfare meat while maintaining high environmental standards.
Given the scale of their business, it is a method of farming which might have been a struggle to continue while remaining profitable.
But thanks to the diversity of their operation, coupled with an eye for consumer trends, they have appealed to a growing number of shoppers who are interested in premium quality, high-welfare meat.
Joel says: “When my grandad was farming, everything was on a much smaller scale. He did a little bit of everything – he kept a few pigs, milked a couple of cows and grew some vegetables.
"That’s how things were done then.
“Dad went to an agricultural college and people at that time were encouraged to focus on one thing in order to be successful. He came home and kept cows and grew potatoes, but success was dependent on the market, which meant things could often be tough.”
In the early 1990s, Sinton was approached by poultry processor Moy Park, which had recently opened a processing facility nearby. Seeing an opportunity, he decided to move into organic poultry production and teamed up with licensing body, Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G).
With a secure route to market for his produce, organic poultry provided Sinton with a steady income, while giving him the opportunity to focus on farming in a low-input way which suited his small operation.
“The chickens are on a large scale, but they are manageable because of the way we operate,” Joel says.
“We take a very hands-on approach. We check them ourselves, keep them clean and let them out.
“There’s no technology involved. It’s farming my grandfather might have done, but these days on a farm of this scale we couldn’t have made a profit.
“We might only be relatively small, but we are farming commercially, maintaining the welfare of our birds and appealing to shoppers who understand the importance of welfare.”
Returning to work on the farm in 2014 after a career in business development in Belfast, Joel decided to focus on finding more ways to engage with the public, so he could share the farm’s story.
“For the farm to support me and my wife, Sophia, I had to do something new,” he says. “I knew from making friends with people outside agriculture that there was a huge interest in what people eat, so I decided I wanted to engage with the end users more and use what I’d learned in my job to communicate what happens on the farm with consumers.”
He started by linking up with a restaurant in Belfast to run a ‘nose to tail’ project, where diners could follow the life of one of the farm’s cows online before eventually dining on it during a seven-course tasting menu.
“Some people were horrified by it, but most people thought it was great,” Joel says. “It was a fantastic way to get people to engage with their meal and really understand what we do here on the farm.”
The project led to several other restaurant events, and after dabbling in wedding catering, Joel has also started selling meat boxes online and at farmers markets through his brand, The Curious Farmer.
Working closely with restaurants has also encouraged him to rethink the breeds he and his dad raise, as well as the farm’s connection with the environment.
The cattle are predominantly grass-fed, but are given a small amount of meal in the summer for management purposes, and they supplement the silage in the winter with a small amount of meal if required.
Joel calves the cows in March and turns them out to the field once they are well adjusted. He sends them to an abattoir and then to his butcher, who hangs the carcases for four weeks before butchering and blast-freezing.
He also doesn’t look for a specific target weight as all the animals are different and are allowed to grow at their own pace.
The heifers are lighter than the steers and the Shorthorns are lighter than the Hereford cross Shorthorns. Generally, though, the heifers are usually 280-300kg, and the steers are around 320-340kg deadweight.
“We initially raised Limousin cattle, but I realised there would probably be more interest at a niche event for native breeds,” says Joel.
“So, we did more events but with different breeds. We raised Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Dorset Horn and Southdown sheep, and we bought some Longhorn and Irish Moiled heifers, the only surviving native breed in Northern Ireland.
“That gave me a real interest in native breeds, so we now have 28 pedigree Shorthorn and Hereford cattle.”
While the cattle and sheep are not organic yet, Joel says he hopes to convert the farm operation once his stock numbers have increased.
“Offering organic red meat would open up new markets for me,” he says.
“We don’t use any fertiliser on the land because everything is low-input, so at the moment that side of the business is run to organic standards without the certification.
“But it’s certainly something that we’d like to do, and something that I think is really important in terms of telling the story of our farm’s standards and the environment we are working to create here.”
For now, Joel is using the knowledge he’s picked up from operating the organic poultry business with his dad to look at how he can improve the farm’s environmental practices further.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’m using what I’ve learned around the farm,” he says.
“I’m particularly interested in introducing different grasses and plants into the pasture in order to improve biodiversity as well as the meat we produce.
“It’s the direction we should be going in as farmers. We should be conscious of the fact that
everything we do has an impact on the environment, and I want to think that our corner of the earth has a positive impact.
“It has to be a balance. Yes, you could rewild the land and have fields of weeds, but it wouldn’t be sustainable as this is a commercial enterprise.”
Rather than increasing their farm size, maintaining a profitable business in future will involve getting the best from their land, something that being organic will enable them to do, Joel says.
“Organic is a natural way of farming,” he says. “Some people might see it as niche, but I see it as a traditional way of production which allows us to keep farming on a scale that makes good quality food accessible to more people.”
And with Brexit on the horizon, Joel says having assurances in terms of how the farm’s poultry is produced is going to become increasingly important.
“With Brexit, there’s potential for low-quality meat to come into the country, but with organic we know there’s an established customer base who want to buy meat that they know is high quality,” he adds.
“They want to know where their food has come from, what it’s been fed, and that it has had a good life.
“As a farmer, that brings us a certain amount of security. We know there will always be a market for the type of bird we are producing, and that gives us confidence to continue farming this way.”