Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year. The moment we put away the Halloween costumes and the sparklers go out from Bonfire Night, our televisions are inundated with festive adverts.
It is the green light to start writing those Christmas lists and to clear out the freezer, ready for the crowning meal of the year – the Christmas roast.
But for Richard Jones, his Yuletide preparations start in January, ordering the turkeys that he will rear into the centrepiece of the dinner table.
Richard, 68, runs Hyden Farm in Clanfield, which specialises in free-range meats from animals that are reared and prepared using traditional methods.
Having rented the farm 30 years, he is the fifth generation of farmer in the Meon Valley.
Hyden Farm’s specialities include South and Hampshire Down sheep, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, the rarest of domestic breeds, and Longhorn cows, the oldest British breed of cattle which dates from 1750.
For this Christmas, Richard is rearing 100 geese, 100 chicken, 50 ducks and 50 guinea fowl, as well as 300 turkeys.
Richard says: ‘We have Norfolk Blacks, the traditional breed of turkeys in this country, and we have the Bronze, which is an American look-alike that you would see at Thanksgiving.
‘The Norfolk Black is a specific breed, so the females weigh about 10 pounds and the males about 15. With the Bronze we can have all different strains and different sizes.
‘The hens and stags could weigh as much as 30 and 40 pounds each.’
At the farm, the turkeys live in a barn with a grassy field outside where they can explore. This is just one of the ways Richard rears his animals traditionally.
‘The birds have natural ventilation in their homes and live by natural light patterns, the day and night cycle,’ says Richard.
‘We try to give them things like straw bales and plastic bags that hang up around the barn which they can play with and jump on.
‘Being outside they can see things happening, and I feed them apples and any waste greens we might have.
‘The minute they see the apples they all rush out and start pecking at them. They talk to each other about the apples, they are like kids.
‘If you whistle to them, all the stags gobble back at you in unison.’
Keeping the turkeys interested is important.
‘All the animals on the farm are the same as us – they have understanding and thought patterns and they get bored.
‘That doesn’t mean they want to sit and watch the television, but they do want to be able to act naturally.
‘It is important you keep them interested in their lives because when they become bored or agitated they cannibalise. They will turn on themselves and start pecking each other.’
For Richard the welfare of his animals is a top priority.
He says: ‘I think that the more we research into animals the more we see how intelligent they are.
‘It is quite frightening how some of the conditions are in intensive farming. It must blow their minds how they are kept.
‘Until a few years ago it was common for sows to be chained up in their pen but that isn’t legal any more.
‘Sometimes you could hear them moaning or the sound of them chewing on the bars. It is like us being put in solitary confinement.
‘With intensive pigs they will sometimes take their back teeth out and dock their tails to prevent them nipping at each others, and intensive poultry live in dim artificial lighting which keeps them subdued and quiet.
‘It is a different way of farming, the mass-produced food industry.’
Richard sees intensively-farmed meat as a separate market to his produce.
He says: ‘I do not want to knock mass-produced meat because British meat is as good as anywhere in the world and it feeds the public cheaply, but I favour a natural style of farming rather than an intensive style.
‘If you go to Tesco you can buy a chicken for £3 – I pay a pound for each day-old chick. These £3 chickens will be killed at 39 days, whereas mine will be killed at 17 weeks.
‘My christmas poultry is all six months old by the time they are ready to be killed, so they have all reached maturity.
‘Anything that is allowed to grow naturally has a better flavour and texture I believe.’
Part of this natural process is eating seasonal food. Richard has seen this in the shifting popularity of the meats his customers buy each Christmas.
‘I think that geese are gaining a bit of ground with the connoisseurs’ market,’ he says.
‘The thing with turkeys and chickens is that they can be farmed any time of the year, but geese are grazing animals. They need grass and exercise, as you can see any time you drive into Portsmouth – they are everywhere.
‘They only lay in the spring so it is a very seasonal meat for Christmas. So far, farming hasn’t worked out how to breed a year-round layer, which is a very good thing.
‘Personally I don’t want to eat strawberries on Christmas Day but I am sure there are people that do, and that is a shame because the good thing about life is variety.
‘In June you can have strawberries, for Christmas you can have Brussel sprouts.’
Hyden Farm serves the local community in a way that supermarkets cannot.
Richard: ‘You are dealing on a more personal level with your customers. They have faith in how you rear your animals, which is difficult for a supermarket to equal.
‘You can go into Waitrose and see that Joe Bloggs the farmer produces all their pigs on the label. He looks like a nice man and it says he rears them nicely, but you have to take their word for it, you don’t know him.
‘But how can a man with 10,000 pigs have as much quality control and interaction as a man with 20 pigs?
‘Confidence is what gives us our customer base. We have had some of our customers for over 30 years.’
This attention to detail has been rewarded on a local and national level, including a Gold Taste award in 2012.
Richard says: ‘Everyone wants people to appreciate what they do, it is a real confidence-booster.
‘We also won the best food producer in 2008 from Hampshire Life magazine, that was a really nice accolade to get. We were up against all the prominent food sellers in the county – it was judged on the intimacy of your involvement with your animals and customers, and your commitment to quality – the full package.’
Even with decades of experience under his belt, Richard has found that parts of the job have got easier.
‘You still have the same old issues like sickness, but what is much easier than 30 years ago is that we now have a lot more chiller space,’ says Richard.
‘It used to be a nightmare if we had a warm spell right before Christmas because all the turkeys were hanging up with no temperature control.’
Christmas may be one of their busiest periods, but it is still important for the Joneses to shoe-horn time in to celebrate themselves.
‘We try to have everything sold by December 23 because believe it or not we have a Christmas too.
‘We end up with what meat we didn’t sell, which is invariably a big turkey. But we don’t have one earmarked for us, mind.’
Richard sticks with the national favourite for his own dinner table, but it is a home-grown affair.
‘We always have turkey with all the trimmings. We produce our own chipolatas, sausagemeat stuffing and gammon from our own pigs. We have seven grandchildren and they all prefer turkey breast to goose, so we save one for Easter instead.’
At a glance
Hyden Farm Originals
Hyden Farm Lane
(023) 9263 2683