Premium traditional turkey KellyBronze achieved a breakthrough by receiving an official go-ahead to market in the United States well before Thanksgiving.
Kelly Turkeys has been testing the U.S. Thanksgiving market in Virginia over the last six years and has built a pilot processing plant on a small farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains. The facility was designed to establish whether Kelly Turkeys could develop a niche market for a top-quality traditional turkey in a market dominated by lower-quality frozen product.
The KellyBronze is produced like turkeys used to be in America—in the style of “New York dressed” turkeys. The birds are dry plucked and hung for 10 to 14 days before evisceration as they were in transport from the Midwest to the East Coast before the days of refrigeration.
"Getting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve our dry process has taken huge amounts of time and effort with meetings in Washington and translation of our U.K. legislation for dry processing so it would meet USDA criteria,” said Paul Kelly, managing director of Kelly Turkeys. “I have to say the USDA has been brilliant and really supportive on getting our unique process approved. They’ve been a pleasure to work with.
“Selling our turkeys in the USA is rather like selling coals to Newcastle since the ‘New York dressed’ process is one that the U.K. imported early in the last century and has become standard for our traditional Christmas market here. In the U.S., this process is almost unknown.”
For the first three years Kelly Turkeys worked with a small organic farmer in Appomattox, Va., to grow 160 of its bronze turkeys to test the Thanksgiving market.
“The few butchers we supplied were very pleased, and the KellyBronze has made up around one third of their sales in three years at a price twice over that of the premium bird they were selling."
The road to success
This gave the Kelly family the confidence to buy a small farm of 120 acres and homestead In May 2014 and then build a new processing facility—an investment over $2 million. The permit for planning permission came through in just seven days from applying to build the plant.
“We just had to confirm that we would not build it within 40 feet of the river that runs through the farm. A bit different to the U.K.!” he commented.
While Carrie Culver tends the farm, she has the help and advice of her husand Judd, who has past experience in a Butterball turkey plant.
“Predators have been an eye opener for me,” Kelly said. “In the U.K., we have the fox and the occasional traveller to contend with. In the U.S., we have coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, possums, rattle snakes, rat snakes and numerous birds of prey.
“Over the past 15 years since I’ve been looking at the U.S. market, everyone tells me that turkeys are sold at $1 per pound,” Kelly continued, “and that no way would people pay the premium needed to grow the birds to full maturity and then dry pluck and hang them.
“I find it strange that in a country where the sales of fine wines and champagne go through the roof at Thanksgiving, it’s inconceivable there are not enough discerning customers who can afford to have the very best for us not to take a small part of the market,” he added. “I believe 45 million turkeys are sold at Thanksgiving. Our challenge was to get discerning customers among them to try our turkey.
“I am aware the U.S. has been a graveyard for many U.K. food companies, but we have done the groundwork. I think we’ve made a very calculated decision and am optimistic about developing a very worthwhile niche market in the States.”