The Goose is Getting Fat!
PUBLISHED: 10:54 11 November 2009 | UPDATED: 11:41 28 February 2013
How one young Somerset couple have created a successful specialist food business in time for Christmas. Words and photos by Rachel Lovell.
Its not often that I get invited to come back to a farm in the dead of night, but on this occasion Im certainly intrigued. Its a shame you could not see them on a clear night; they look amazing, says the fresh-faced young man next to me. Im standing watching a huge flock of geese softly hooting and padding their way around a paddock, as tenant farmer Dan Dunning shows me around. Were at Whitney Farm near Ilminster, where he and his wife, Sarah, are gearing up for their second year supplying geese for Christmas dinner tables around Somerset and beyond. However, I dont quite understand the connection with the night sky.
"When all the stars are out and the moon is bright, all the geese just stand still and stare up at the sky, all 1,100 of them! I think its some throwback to how they used the stars for migration, explains Dan. As his eyes roam across his waddling flock, Dans pride in what he and Sarah are doing here is clear, and rightly so. With the average age of UK farmers approaching 60, at only 27 and 26 years old the Somerset-born couple are bucking the trend and proving that there is plenty of hope for UK farming yet.
Whitney Farm is a Somerset County Council tenancy farm, and when the couple moved in on April Fools Day 2008 they certainly had their work cut out for them. The house and farm were in a huge mess as the place had not been properly maintained for years. When wed looked around on the viewing day the previous July,
I suppose we saw it all through rose-tinted spectacles, but we knew that it had great potential and we were up for the challenge. Were young!
However, it was not simply a case of telling the council that they wanted to take the farm on. After submitting a comprehensive business plan, a tough interviewing process ensued at County Hall. They picked over the plan completely and asked lots of questions, but because Id worked so hard on it I was fortunately able to answer them, explained Dan.
Dan also had the benefit of years of goose farming experience behind him at his parents business, Gooseslade Farm in neighbouring East Coker. It clearly all added up to an impressive application, and the couple won the tenancy. When we got that phone call, I thought they were joking at first. It was the hardest interview Ive ever done. I could not help but feel for the people who wanted it as much as we did though.
The excitement and nerves soon had to make way for some serious hard graft as the couple prepared the 73-acre farm for their imminent new arrivals. With less than eight weeks to go, fencing was repaired, dilapidated buildings were tended to or demolished in some cases, feed was ordered, and the main barn was made suitable for the fluffy young inhabitants.
At 5am on a May morning last year, Joe, Dans brother, arrived with a vanload of 1,000 day-old goslings from their parents hatchery, and they set about unloading the precious cargo. It was definitely daunting, laughed Sarah. They were cheeping away and were very cute, but it felt a bit like a baby arriving the realisation hit us that something so fragile was now our responsibility.
Its not surprising that the couple did not sleep very well for the first few nights, as Dan explains: I kept getting up to go and check on them as I was worrying that a heat lamp bulb might blow, or I had them set at the wrong height. If that happens, and the birds get chilled, you will have a pen of dead goslings within a couple of hours.
But it didnt happen and that first flock were out grazing in the paddocks after about five weeks, their feed later supplemented with locally grown wheat and lupins, a high protein UK-grown alternative to imported soya. Each night, the Embden-cross geese, which produce a good proportion of breast meat, are herded back into the barn and secure yard to protect them from foxes.
Despite minor losses to foxes during the day, the vast majority of the 2008 flock made it to slaughter as planned. But selling what is essentially a luxury item, particularly during a turbulent financial climate, meant it was still a nerve-racking time. By the end of the first week of December, a problem was emerging. We had all these dead geese and not many orders, explained Sarah. It was really a bit of a worry, but then there was a big rush and by the time Christmas came, every one had been sold.
Dan continued: My dad always loses about a stone in December through a combination of worry and work. I lost half a stone myself last Christmas its an effective diet but I dont recommend it!
I think the issue is that people dont always think that far ahead when it comes to Christmas, and thats why orders come in later rather than sooner, but its fair enough.
I asked Dan how business is looking this year. Its hard to tell as building up a business is a long process but were on budget, were on target, were paying our bills and were really enjoying the job.
We seem to be selling a lot more geese through word of mouth this year, so I suppose our reputation must be building, added Sarah.
Another change this year is the arrival of a furry fellow named Duke. At 11 months old the collie pup is still learning, but hes already more than halved the time it takes the couple to herd the geese in each night. Dan and Sarah have also developed a beef box scheme, raising Angus, Hereford and Red Devon cattle to complement the goose business, and with Sarah expecting a baby after Christmas, it looks like 2010 will be a very busy year.
But what about 2009? I could not help but wonder what would be the centrepiece of the Dunning Christmas table. I always get asked this! laughs Dan, but well definitely be having goose. We usually have a three-bird roast; this year I think it will be goose, turkey and pheasant, with stuffing and plum sauce. Ill never get sick of goose as its so special.
www.whitneyfarm.co.uk, 01460 258797
The location of Whitney Farm, near Ilminster
What will you be eating on Christmas day?