Growing up on her family’s farm in County Durham, Judith Dryden yearned for a career in farming. But with her father of the opinion that agriculture was a man’s job, she reluctantly pursued a career in science, working for Imperial Chemical Industries for 12 years. However, marrying a local farmer brought a change in fortune and the Durham-born country girl returned to her rural roots – reigniting a lifelong love, and sparking a fresh idea.
‘I didn’t just want to be someone who did the paperwork, I wanted to be part of the business,’ says Judith, who now runs Murton Moor Farm in Seaham alongside her husband Martin and son Richard. Back in 1999, after marrying Martin and starting a family on his 650-acre tenanted farm in County Durham, Judith decided she wanted more responsibility and introduced a flock of 150 free-range KellyBronze turkeys to the business.
Now, 20 years on, Murton Moor Farm is one of the biggest turkey producers in the North East, rearing over 550 KellyBronze turkeys and 150 free-range geese. Originating from Essex, KellyBronze is a rare breed of turkey renowned for their quality and rich flavour.
‘It’s been very successful, more so than I ever dreamed,’ Judith explains. ‘I came across the KellyBronze turkey in 1999 and thought it would be a great enterprise, as there was no-one else in the North East doing the same thing. Then, while watching a cookery programme on TV, I saw one of the chefs cooking a goose with a recipe I wanted to try, but I couldn’t find any local, free-range geese producers. That’s when I thought right, we’ll have a go.’
Despite sounding like a seasonal venture, producing delicious birds for Christmas is very much a year-round effort on Murton Moor Farm. While Martin and Richard are busy with the farm’s crops and carrying out agricultural contracting on 3,000 acres across County Durham, Judith spends her summer rearing the birds after they come into the farm at just one-day-old. The chicks are nurtured in their infancy on the farm’s ‘nursery’ (a small patch of gated land adjacent to the Dryden’s home), before being moved to the fields where they’re allowed to roam freely.
‘I get told off by Martin for spending so much time with the chicks, but I just want to make sure they’re living as healthy and as happy a life as possible,’ says Judith. ‘Animal welfare is very important to me – not just from the birds’ point of view, but for the taste of the product too. KellyBronze turkeys are a very slow-growing breed, so they need to be fed properly to achieve a better taste. It works both ways.’
Judith begins to receive Christmas orders from as early as September. From then on, they come in a continuous stream right up until the beginning of December, before the birds are slaughtered, processed and ready for customers to collect from the farm – which, by the 23rd and 24th December, is transformed into a winter wonderland. The farm machinery is put away, the car park is swept and the fridges are packed full. Christmas trees, lights, tinsel and festive tunes fill the pop-up farm shop at Murton Moor, awaiting the arrival of around 500 customers who collect their turkey or goose while having a chat with Judith, Martin and Richard over a glass of ginger wine.
But it hasn’t all been cheer and merry-making. Having begun the business 20 years ago, the Drydens have experienced some testing times. With little prompt, Judith recounts the early days with certain nostalgic amusement. ‘Like all things when you first set them up, the first Christmas went something like, “I’m never doing this again”’, she laughs. ‘The collection days were chaos. We didn’t have enough staff and, back then, all the orders were done by phone, so it was getting to the point where I couldn’t even have a hot drink without the phone ringing. I just thought, “what have we got ourselves into!”’
Recognising that things needed to change, Judith introduced an online ordering system, allowing customers to order their birds from the farm’s website. She also set up three other collection points at farms across the North East: W.Fox & Son in Stockton, Broom House Farm Shop in Durham, and Kirkharle Farm Shop in Northumberland, meaning customers didn’t have to flock for miles to get their Christmas bird.
‘I had customers coming all the way to our farm in County Durham from Scotland to collect their bird, which I thought was just crazy,’ Judith reasons. ‘We got to a stage where it was getting so busy that we were just saying: “hello, what’s your name, there’s your turkey, bye” – and that’s not good enough.
‘Being a family business, we want to offer a high-quality, personal service. Now all I need to do is check the computer. The customers get an automatic response when they place an order, and having other collection points gives us more time with our customers. It runs like clockwork… Almost!’
Despite her unwavering commitment to her job, like anyone, Judith relishes a bit of down time. If she’s not baking delightful sweet treats, she’s jumping on her push bike and riding a few miles down the old railway line. ‘My getaway from the business is my bike. It gets me out into the countryside, keeps me active and really clears my head. Believe it or not, turkeys and geese can be quite wearing!’
As the countdown to Christmas begins, so, too, does the excitement for a festive feast. But when tucking into our turkey, it’s easy to forget the wealth of work it has taken to get that Christmas dinner from plot to plate. Judith Dryden at Murton Moor Farm is just one of the many local producers dedicating their festive period to providing high-quality food, and as she gears up for another busy Christmas, her poultry is very much in motion.
Murton Moor Farm, Murton, Seaham SR7 9TN
Judith’s Top Five Cooking Tips
1) Buy a good-quality bird with a nice layer of fat – this gives you tender, juicy meat
2) Don’t wrap it in tinfoil. The bird’s skin acts as a natural covering which locks the moisture in, tinfoil steams the bird rather than roasts it
3) Cooking temperatures: 180 degrees in a conventional oven, 160 degrees for a fan oven, mark 4 for a gas oven. The best way to cook a KellyBronze is quickly, so I wouldn’t recommend slow or overnight cooking
4) Cook the bird breast-side down. Turkeys and geese have fat in their backs, which then circulates through and gives you a lovely, juicy meat
5) To check if it’s cooked, pierce the thigh with a skewer – clear juices indicate a cooked bird. Each of our birds come with cooking instructions, so don’t forget to keep them handy on the big day!