By Hannah Jordan
With Thanksgiving just behind us and Christmas on the doorstep, activity at West Horsley’s Bramble Farm is at its yearly peak. Founded by Frank Joy as just a one acre-plot in Effingham in 1929, the free-range, GM-free turkey farming business, has evolved to cover around 50 acres across two sites in West Horsley overseen first by his son Derek, and now his grandson Adrian.
So, it’s been three generations of Joy at Bramble Farm then, Adrian?
Yes, it’s hard to believe that at the age of 21, in 1929, my grandfather bought his first farm. Of course, economics were different then but still, it must have been a big thing. He was working in a deli with his future brother-in-law, Fred, and they said: “You know what? We should be providing this food.” So that’s what they did. They bought one-acre plots right next to each other and then my grandfather eventually bought another five acres behind those and bought Fred out.
The operation now consists of Bramble Farm on Shere Road and Overview Farm here on the A245. It’s come a long way then?
Yes, after buying all that land they really expanded the business and lived there until they bought this land at Openview Farm, where I now live, in 1948. This was just a field then. He built this house, he built the farm, the sheds. My grandparents, my father and my two aunts lived here and built the business.
And was it always poultry?
Yes, we had laying hens then and we’ve always had turkeys for Christmas. The biggest part of the business back then was eggs, tomatoes, bedding plants and chickens for meat. It was a typical mixed poultry farm of the day.
And what about the free-range aspect?
My grandfather never did battery farming, he didn’t believe in that and we have carried the mentality though – we are very focussed on welfare. He had very strong beliefs and morals about how food should be produced. He was just a great man.
You seem quite emotional about your grandfather. How well did you know him?
I knew him very well. He was a surrogate father I suppose, because my father was, and still is to a point, focused on the farm. But as with all grandparents, they get to hand them back at the end of the day, so they always seem more easy-going!
Your formal early education was at Clandon primary school and then George Abbott, but you must have learnt a lot growing up on a farm. What was it like?
My parents divorced when I was seven, but my memories of just being on the farm are fantastic. To have a farm as your garden is just amazing, I mean, I was driving tractors at seven…not on my own obviously – that was when I was 12!
My father loves telling the story of when I was seven or eight years old and riding on the mudguard of the tractor when he was backing it into the barn and being the cocky little so-and-so that I was – and probably still am – I said I could easily do that. He challenged me to do it and I backed it straight in. He said I couldn’t do it twice so he drove it back out again and I promptly did it again!
So, your grandfather obviously handed the business over to your dad, Derek, at some point?
Yes, it was in the late 60s, early 70s and dad began to expand the farming enterprise into dairy and beef as well as continuing the poultry. He bought Bramble Farm at the top of Shere Road for that in the late 70s and rented extra land as it grew. He continued to push cream, yoghurt and later corn-fed chicken to the high-end retail market.
And does that continue today?
No, the dairy industry was tough – the price of milk was too low unless you had space to grow, and he packed it up in the late 80s along with beef just before the BSE crisis in the early 90s. We stopped our corn fed chickens as well, which we were selling about 1,000 a week of, in about 2005.
It’s a sad reality that we are generally a nation based on buying food based on cost and not taste or quality, so in order to be a successful farm in the 80s you had to do volume, or as a small producer, you had to add value – sell directly and cut out the middle-man. We didn’t have the space or desire for the former, so we focussed on added value.
So, you purely farm free-range Bronze turkeys now?
Yes, we supply wholesale to clients like Smithfield Market and various top-end butchers In London and the South East and through the farm gate we sell to everyone from the local community to people who drive from the south coast.
That’s quite a way to travel for a turkey! How do you manage to get customers like that?
People buy directly from the farm have a different psychology. You want good food; you are ‘foodies’; it’s a growing market thankfully. They truly want stuff they know is local and ethically produced. That’s our market.
The farms that produce for some of the big food shops produce 700,000 birds. Do you think they walk through the turkeys in the fields every day like we’ve just done? Of course they don’t, not a chance. Here people like to know the turkeys have had a good life and I can put my hand on my heart and say they have.
Which brings us up to today. Your father, at the age of 70, has taken a step back and put the reins in your hands. Was that always the plan? I mean did you ever think you’d do anything different?
Well, all I ever wanted to do as a kid was run the family farm, because it’s all I ever knew. I was plucking turkeys before I could even pick one up! I did think about joining the army, and I was going into the Household Cavalry at 16 but decided at the last minute it wasn’t for me. Everyone that knows me agrees it would have been wrong – I’m probably too much of a free spirit.
So, what have you been up to between then and now?
My father encouraged me to go out and work in industry so I went out and did all manner of things. I went to work on a farm in Canada, which was incredible, did a lot of travelling and came back with great aspirations for the farm. They were completely unrealistic and not relevant to farming here so I decided to do something else. I then went into tree surgery, did an agriculture degree, ran a digested sewerage company – the ultimate recycling – and a couple of other businesses.
But ultimately, the farming was in your blood, right?
Maybe! My father has talked about retiring forever, but two years ago he finally asked me: “So, how about it?”. I’d got to a point after 14 years in my previous business where I needed to move on. So, here I am. It was the right time.
So, it was an easy decision?
No. It was hard actually. I just wasn’t sure and it has been an emotional decision, but I finally thought, if I don’t do this and give it everything, I will really regret it.
And have you just slipped straight into it, like second nature?
As a farmer’s son, you think you know everything about a farm because you’ve always been involved but the reality, when you are signing the cheques, is that you suddenly learn an awful lot more.
Is your father still fully involved? It must be hard to ease off after nearly 60 years at the helm..
He’s very hands on still, considering he’s 70, but he’s stepping back a bit. There were certainly concerns in the beginning on both sides. Neither of us are wallflowers and he’s been his own boss from the age of 14, more or less. Of course, we’ve locked horns a bit but it’s been quite cathartic for both of us. We’ve got our own roles now and it works well. If I have to be somewhere else, I don’t worry about the turkeys because I’ve got someone with 60 years’ experience looking after them!
What would you have to worry about?
Fireworks night is a massive problem, scaring birds to the extent where we have lost hundreds in the past, and predators of course are always a threat. For example, we had a problem mink that could have had a catastrophic effect had we not been there at the time. We lost 300 turkeys over a few nights about three years ago, which was really devastating – that was just one fox. And this year we lost three or four when weasels got in. It’s where nature and modern-day farming struggle to come to an agreement, I suppose.
So security is a major issue then..
Yes, and not just to protect against animals.
Sadly, we also have a problem with burglars – last year we had three break-in attempts in December. I averaged 1.5hrs sleep a night in the three weeks to Christmas, so I could patrol, as well as employing overnight security. It’s a sad reality these days.
You must get a nice chunk of time off after Christmas though, to make up for the stress and lack of sleep.
[Laughs] When I sold the idea of taking on the farm to my partner Sarah, I said we could work hard for six months, have an easier few months and then have a long holiday. Now, we laugh at that.
But surely once they’ve all gone at Christmas there’s not too much to do until the summer?
Well, the dream was we’d have January off but the reality is that not everyone picks up the turkey they order so sometimes we are left with a few and we need to prepare them for freezing straight away because they are perishable obviously. Then all the buildings have to be cleaned out and any repairs and maintenance done, the feeders and drinkers have to be stripped down and cleaned and disinfected and then again two weeks before the turkeys come.
And when is that?
They arrive as day-old chicks at the beginning of July and then it really begins. We check them every two hours from 5.30am to 11pm every day and even now we still check them every three to four hours for anything from leaking water drinkers to faulty gates and predators; anything wrong basically.
Ok, so a full-time job, year-round then.. You obviously have to be passionate to be in it!
You also own another 6 commercial units here alongside Overview Farm. What part do they play?
We first got into letting them out when my grandfather developed Parkinsons and dad was trying to find a way to pay for care. So he let out a building to a car mechanic, Charles Taylor who started CT Cars, and his rent paid for a nurse to live here. It wasn’t a great visionary idea of developing an industrial let business, it was simply about finding a solution to make my grandfather’s last days as best as they could be. And what it has grown into is a critical income for us as a family.
So, what’s the vision for the future?
It’s about how we can make this work for us, in this era. Do we start producing hundreds of thousands of turkeys and supply people like M&S or Tesco? The answer is no. I don’t want to mass produce turkeys. I’m not interested in it. I’ve seen what it means to scale a business and when livestock is involved it means that welfare and standards substantially drop.
Increasing sales of your turkeys out of the farm gate then, by spreading the Bramble Farm ethos?
Yes absolutely. We do have to sell more directly to the public to future proof this business, and we are growing: in 2015 we sold 400 turkeys through the farm gate directly to consumers, last year it was nearly 800 and this year we hope to sell 1,200. That would be amazing, and maybe eventually 2,000. I’m not thinking of a huge business, I’m just talking about a living and I think we can do it.
Some people want a connection, they want to see what they are getting, where they are getting it from and meet the farmer and they can do that here. The primary focus will always be the local people here but after that it’s for anyone that wants a good quality, succulent, free range, high welfare produced Turkey.
It’s obvious it’s not just the business that has been passed from your grandfather to your father, to you, it’s the passion too..
I could never sit in an ivory tower, I’ll always be at the coalface and walking through the turkeys every day, checking things over – those are the things that make it special for me.
So who might you pass that on to?
Oh crikey, I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with that question! We have to engage someone to help us on a day to day basis who feels the same way about the business as we do and that won’t be easy. Anyone who has run their own business knows that’s tough.
Another generation of Joy, perhaps then?
I do eventually want to devote more time to family and having children! It would definitely be nice to be able to pass something on the way it has been passed on to me, if of course he or she decided that’s what they wanted. Then that would be nice…
Thank you Hannah.
Adrian has kindly donated a turkey box worth £80 to a prize draw for our subscribers on 16 Dec. Names will be drawn out of a hat. Sign up now for the chance to win.