Reg Johnson has been rearing poultry on Swainson House farm since the 1970s. He has always predominately focussed on producing ducks but also rears chickens and Turkeys and Geese at Christmas time.
Like most artisan food businesses Reg has slowly built up a reputation by word of mouth up over the years for producing great quality poultry with help coming after working with local, well known Lancashire chefs Paul Heathcote and Nigel Haworth whose networking with other chefs helped to spread the word around the country how fantastic Reg’s poultry is.
Swainson House farm is located in Goosnargh a small village set just outside the market town of Longridge in the Ribble valley. This is a beautiful area of the country described by J.R.R Tolkien as a landscape of wide, rippling rivers, deep wooded conifer groves and misty green Lancashire countryside.
Reg is what I’d describe as wise farmer, he understands and is passionate about what he produces but also has a vision and an understanding of how to run a business. He kindly offered to show us round the farm at very short notice after another farm visit on the same day had to be cancelled. We joined up with the team from the award winning pub the Eagle and Child, Ramsbottom for this visit, they have a lot of young staff and Glen Duckitt the owner works tirelessly to help develop and give them a better understanding of how and where the food they serve at the pub is produced and comes from.
To start the tour Reg first took us to a large shed where the feed is produced. Straight away you start to understand what sets Reg’s poultry apart from the competition. This is the only poultry farm in the UK that mixes it’s own feed! Inside the shed a large machine mixes the various components of the feed together. Reg starts to discuss in detail about what makes up the feed and you can tell straight away years of trial and error have given him a unique insight into what ratios of ingredients make the best feed for producing the perfect duck or chicken. The bulk of the feed is made up of wheat or maize (corn fed) and the protein is supplied from soya bean or fish meal, there are no antibiotics, supplements or growth promoters used. Reg is constantly striving to improve the flavour and succulence of the birds and explained how he had been experimenting by increasing the oil content on the wheat based feed and supplementing grass meal into the diet also. The farm currently uses about 40 tonnes a week of this home-made feed.
We then moved over to the first shed that contains the 6 day old hatchling ducks. The ducks are an Aylesbury and Peking cross breed, the temperature of the shed is raised for the first 6 days to help keep the ducklings comfortable and stress free. There’s approximately 2600 ducks in this very roomy shed and at 10 days they are split into two different sheds to provide even more space as they grow. As we continue round the farm Reg shows us the shed with the 13 day old ducklings and 21 day old ducklings. The ducks are kept in the sheds up to the age of 56 days when they are ready for slaughter.
Before moving on to the slaughter and processing area Reg showed us his latest installation, machinery for washing duck feathers. A useful by-product, they process about a tonne of feathers a week which are then sold on to various bedding companies. Reg explained that he is looking at getting some duvets and pillows made exclusively from his own Goosanrgh ducks feathers which he can then sell in his farm shop.
We then move over to the slaughter and processing area. There are two different lines here one for chickens and one for ducks. The reason for the two lines is that chickens are dipped in hot water to aide with the plucking process but this would scald the skin on the ducks so they are dry plucked and then dipped in warm wax at the end of the plucking process to help remove any of the remaining feathers.
Keeping stress levels of the birds to a minimum prior to slaughter is very important as it affects the quality of the meat. The layout of Swainson house farm is very compact and the ducks and chickens have literally only travel across the yard to the holding pen prior to slaughter which helps keep the stress levels to a minimum. There they are dispatched quickly and humanely by being stunned and then bled. At this point Reg again does something else that no other duck producer does to his knowledge; he allows the ducks to dry age in the chiller for 48 hours before eviscerating and plucking, by doing this it allows the flavour to develop further.
The processing line is set up like a conveyor belt system with each bird placed in shackles after slaughter. As the bird moves along the line it is eviscerated and then plucked eventually reaching the end where it is ready to be sent out to the customer which in Reg’s case is mainly pubs, restaurants, butchers shops and Lancashire based supermarket chain, Booths. Reg tends to deal directly with pubs and restaurants, the reason for this is the shelf life is relatively short on the ducks because they are left to hang for 2 days; a butcher’s shop may struggle to sell the ducks before the use by date but pubs and restaurants tend to have a higher throughput so shelf life is not as bigger issue. Reg also sends two vehicles a week that travel down to London direct from the farm in the early hours of the morning to deliver to the restaurants and markets located in the capital.
Reg is constantly looking to the future and has already started a project to move the farm over to a sustainable energy source by growing the biomass crop, Miscanthus. Miscanthus is a high yielding energy crop that grows over 3 metres tall, resembles bamboo and produces a crop every year without the need for replanting. It was planted at the farm last year and the first crop will be ready this year. It provides a clean, sustainable source of power and it will also represents a considerable saving on powering the farm.
As our tour comes to an end it is clear that Reg Johnson has created a very unique set up at Swainson house farm. His passion and knowledge for the poultry he rears is clear for everyone to see but cleverly he has also managed to develop a market for his product on a scale that allows him to keep control and remain artisan without the need to succumb to the large multiples, a model that more farmers round the country I’m sure would like to duplicate.