Christmas Special #1: Cracknell's Farm





For many people, one of the key parts of the Christmas period is food. Huge roast dinners with all the trimmings, towering plates of mince pies, and abundant cheese boards all feature heavily in my 32 years of Christmas memories, not to mention the days upon days of preparation leading up to the event. 

Having been in Canada for the last two Christmases (on a snowy island, and nestled in the mountains respectively), this year I’m winding my way back to my parents for the holiday season. My mum usually cooks (with a team of helpers obviously), favouring the traditional goose over the imported turkey tradition, but this year I suggested that I cook Christmas dinner for a change. With my current locavore focus, I suggested that as part of my present to my parents this year, I’d source the ingredients from local farms. 

As there’s only three of us, a goose seemed a little excessive. But fancying something a little different, I settled on the idea of a duck, leaving step two the challenge of finding a locally sourced bird. Fortunately the Better Food Company came to my rescue, with their offer of being able to order in poultry from a local farm for the Christmas period. I don't eat a lot of meat, so it's important to me to know where the meat I eat is from, and how it was raised. With this in mind, I set about tracking down exactly where my duck was coming from. 

After a fair amount of winding through beautiful Somerset countryside, I find myself at the end of a driveway, and at the gates of Cracknell’s Farm. Jeff greets me warmly as I arrive, and straight away whisks me off on a tour of the 45 acre farm. We start at the nearest field, a large piece of pasture occupied by a couple of hundred honking, inquisitive geese. “They’re noisy old things,” Jeff jokes. “I think the neighbours are actually quite happy when Christmas is over!” As they gather around us, seemingly jostling for the starring role in my photographs, Jeff explains that every day he walks them from the barn down to the field, and back at night to lock them up safe from predators.

We move from here into one of the heated brooders, where week old chicks tweet and scuttle around, bunching together at the intrusion into their space. They stay inside for four weeks before they start free-ranging, having free access to the huge fields on the farm. He has 2000 chickens at any one time, and the fields are full of different age birds, some staying close to their barns and others ranging further afield. We pop our head into another brooder to see the ducks, and they bunch in a corner away from me. I have no better luck in the field, where I struggle to get close enough to my future Christmas dinner to even get a photograph.

We walk across another field and I ask Jeff about the history of the farm. “Mum and Dad got married 60 odd years ago,” he tells me. “They bought a house and this one field, and we built it up from there.” He points out one of the original barns his father built, and I’m captivated by the lovely hand made wooden names that adorn each building. From here, we walk through the grove of cricket bat willow trees, and over to where the 100 breeding ewes are out grazing in one of the fields. Jeff tells me about how his dad started pasturing the chickens he was raising, and went off to Langport on his bike to sell the chicken. “It all went well to start off with,” he explains, “but then the guy he was selling them to told him he could buy chickens cheaper elsewhere with the rise of intensive chicken rearing.” He pauses before continuing. “A fortnight later, the buyer came back and told him that his customers didn’t want the cheap chicken, they wanted his chicken!” I look around for a moment, and note that these are some of the healthiest and happiest looking birds I've seen; genuinely free-range and looked after with attention and care.

As we walk back up towards the main farm, I’m amazed that he manages this operation day to day on his own. As well as raising the poultry, he also butchers all the birds on site, for which he brings in 8-10 other people to help out for the day. He takes me on a tour of his facility, a mix of modern high tech design and wonderful old custom machinery that you can’t get any longer. He talks me through the process, the wing machine, the pluckers that are used to dry pluck the geese and ducks with their rotating plates (“it’s quite a skilled job”), the giant scalder, and a crazy looking chicken plucker which plucks a chicken in 20 seconds. Once de-feathered, they're placed on racks and rolled into the next room where they’re gutted and chilled. 

He shows me some of the walk in fridges. “Why do you need a turkey when you’ve got a goose like that,” Jeff jokes, holding out a newly packaged goose to me. The birds are sold to local butchers across Somerset and Dorset, and that connection is important to him. “I’m going into 20 butchers shops and farm shops every week, dealing with the boss face to face. It shows that the product is genuine,” he point out. “Local has got the triumph for most things in all honesty. If you know where your meat comes from, you know what it’s like. You’re not relying on a label, you can see . You develop relationships with people which is the key to the whole thing.”

As we walk back to my car, we chat about Jeff’s decision to continue slaughtering his own birds. “It’d be a lot easier to take the chickens to a slaughterhouse somewhere else,” he explains. “I wouldn’t be employing people to do the job for me, I wouldn’t have to manage them or the machinery. But the product would suffer, and therefore I can’t do it.”

I leave happy in the knowledge that the duck I'll be eating on Christmas day has been reared in a natural environment with care, and will meet its end at the hands of the passionate farmer who raised it.

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