Bird is the Word

Forget frozen. For this Crozet farmer, boutique turkeys are all the rage.

Kyle LaFerriere Kyle LaFerriere Photography LLC

Virginia Living Magazine Kelly Bronze Turkeys

(Photography by Kyle LaFerriere)

As a boy, Judd Culver dreamed of growing up to be a fighter pilot or a chef. Instead, he became a turkey farmer. But the circuitous route that led to raising KellyBronze birds—often described as the “Rolls-Royce of turkeys”—makes sense the more you talk to him. Come to find out, becoming the only farmer outside of England to raise the prized gobblers—which will cost you $200 and up for Thanksgiving dinner—was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity while Culver and his family were living in Scotland.

Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Magazine Kelly Bronze Turkeys

(Photography by Kyle LaFerriere)

KellyBronze turkeys are bred to be wild. They spend their days outside on Culver’s Crozet farm and are allowed to grow for six months—twice as long as the average turkey, which is typically harvested at 12 weeks. The lengthy process is marked by battles with predators like snakes and coyotes, free-range follies (during Culver’s first year, 80 birds took off down the main road), and seven days of dry aging. But the effort pays off. KellyBronze turkeys are so remarkably flavorful they’re considered a holiday game-changer.

“The fat content gives you the flavor and the juiciness and also the fast cook time,” Culver explains. “A 28-pound turkey will take just under three hours to cook, then you rest it for an hour.” By comparison, a supermarket bird of the same size would roast for nine hours.

But don’t take it from him. Look across the pond to England—where this legendary bird originated—and you’ll find that KellyBronze is the Christmas turkey of choice for celebrity chefs like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. The breed hails from Danbury, Essex, where Derek Kelly started raising standard white turkeys in 1971. Business was good until the 1980s, when frozen grocery store turkeys cornered the market. Looking to differentiate their business, Derek’s son Paul, who had studied poultry science in Scotland, hatched a plan: why not raise rare breeds, like the bronze turkey that originated in Mexico?

Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Magazine Kelly Bronze Turkeys

(Photography by Kyle LaFerriere)

Easier said than done, of course. Despite a great product and the family’s years of experience in the poultry biz, it would take a higher power to convert British grocery shoppers. Serendipitously, that happened in 1989, when KellyBronze turkeys earned star billing in Delia’s Christmas, a cookbook by British TV presenter and chef, Delia Smith. From there it was full feathers ahead with expansions, shifts to organic methods, and megawatt endorsements capped off by Queen Elizabeth II herself, who awarded Kelly the Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1998 for “services to the farm poultry industry.” So how on Earth did a farmer in tiny Crozet, Virginia, come to launch the lone American branch of this royally-recognized British brand?

“It was a perfect storm,” Culver explains.

After meeting at Virginia Tech, Culver and his wife, Cari, moved to Dundee, Scotland, where she was completing her post-doctoral fellowship in immunology.

Judd, who’d graduated from Tech with a degree in animal science, had jobs at mega poultry producers, Butterball and Mountaire Farms in North Carolina, on his r sum . So, while in the U.K., he took a sales gig with a poultry feed supplier, which ultimately led him to ring up Paul Kelly at KellyBronze.

“Paul met me and he was like, ‘OK, so you actually know how to do everything that we need to do. Do you want to start a business?” Culver recalls. “We didn’t even sign anything and we shook on it.”

(Photography by Kyle LaFerriere)

The timing was right as the Culvers’ son Afton had recently been diagnosed with autism. Knowing Afton needed support services beyond those available in the U.K., the couple decided to move back to the United States and found a piece of property in Crozet. Six years later, the KellyBronze Virginia outpost has not only proven there’s an American interest in boutique birds, but that foodies here are ravenous for them.

Beyond Crozet, KellyBronze turkeys are now sold in New York’s Chelsea Market and at Eataly locations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, and Las Vegas.

“Last year we sold out of small birds in September,” says Culver. “The rest were gone by the first week of November.” That’s why he’s added an additional 1,000 to this year’s stock for a grand total of 4,700 available birds. That is, of course, if you act fast.


This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue.

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