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Darragh McCullough on why you can't beat selling from the farm gate


Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

While most people sweated over preparations for the Christmas dinner, I found myself fretting about exactly 49 dinners on Christmas day.

When I first took a notion to start rearing turkeys for Christmas, I never appreciated how high the stakes would actually be when all my punters had put down good money for the centrepiece of one of the most important family occasions of the year.

All day on December 25 I found myself glancing anxiously at the phone half expecting an angry text or missed call from somebody appalled at how their €65 bird had turned out.

Lo and behold, only good texts started to filter through over the following days and I could finally feel my own digestive system revert to normal.

Moving 49 turkeys out of the 50 chicks that I received in the early autumn was a result in my book.

I had one massive bird who was tipping the scales at close to 30kg in early December when the majority were at 7kg.

But this Schwarzenegger of the turkey world simply keeled over one morning about one week before they were all due to be killed.

Apparently it's quite common in the poultry industry for big birds to simply get a heart attack if they are not killed before they come under too much pressure.

There was also the small issue of not having birds that exactly matched all the order weights.

Typically, a family gathering of say six adults and two children will munch their way through a 14lb turkey between Christmas day and the inevitable sandwiches and curries that follow on St Stephen's day.

So most of the orders are for 12, 14 and 16lb birds.

But there will also be a few who want 20, 22 and even 28lb turkeys, and at the other extreme those who'll want a boned and rolled breast weighing no more than 3lb.

The problem, as every livestock producer knows, is that nature doesn't dial up weights according to a spreadsheet.

A dull and damp autumn followed by a cold December, combined with grain that wasn't just as plump as the 2016 harvest meant that the birds ended up over one pound lighter compared to last year.

But the intricacies of how long your turkeys have spent lolling in the autumn sunshine are of little interest to the frazzled woman (which it invariably is) that arrives last thing before Christmas Eve to collect the 22-pounder that has already cost her €100.

You're asking her would she mind taking two birds instead while her over-hyped four and five year-olds wander over to my live crib only to get their lovely ribboned hair mauled in the donkey's mouth... it can get a bit fraught pretty quickly.

No matter that the combined weight of 16lb and a 12lb is way above the 20lb that she ordered, along with promises that absolutely no one of the 15-strong party will be left hungry from a 16lb bird.

"This isn't what I paid for, and it's not good enough", is a response you just have to suck up because, as we all know, the customer is always right.

Meanwhile, another woman (which it still invariably is) lands back with a Christmas tree you sold her the previous day.

She's in a terrible state because her husband is coming home in an hour and they always have a big argument every year about where the tree should go, so she decided she'd just do it herself this year and then she wrung off the screw-in stand that you also sold her and it was the one thing that she wanted to get done…

You would be forgiven for thinking that I will never again attempt to sell as much as an onion to a member of the public, but the fact is, it was a rip-roaring success.

Despite Christmas tree sellers materialising at literally every mile on the six-mile stretch between my farm and Drogheda, and more the opposite way towards Balbriggan, I still managed to sell my target number of trees.

Even with Northern merchants offering cheaper trees, local supermarkets muscling in, and established sellers that had been there for years, I found that a curiosity factor brought people up the back lane of my farm to see what was on offer.

2018 harvest

The plan is to build on the whole 'experience' of visiting a farm for Christmas where people will be able to walk into the field and select their own tree and turkey in the future.

Now there's something that no supermarket or Northerner will ever be able to compete on!

But enough talk of Christmas - we've already started into the 2018 harvest with the first of our daffodils picked and sold. And I've got my first Polish export customer visiting the farm this morning to make sure that we are who we say we are.

The power of the internet and mobile phones has made the business world a pretty compact marketplace but it's still hard to beat seeing the whites of the other fella's eyes.

As somebody reminded me recently, people buy from people. It might sound stupid, but for some reason I like that phrase. I suppose the long version is that customers buy from people they like and trust. It's hard to do that in an email.

But, as I've learned from my farm shop experience, even with the benefit of face-to-face deals, you won't win over all the people all of the time. That's life.

Here's to 2018.

Indo Farming