A Plucky Issue
Why raising ducks in Vermont has its challenges—but also some rewards
Written onNovember 24 , 2015
When I was young, we visited my grandmother in Haverhill, Massachusetts every few months. She never cooked a meal with less than a cup of cream or a pound of butter. But of all of the rich and sumptuous meals I enjoyed at her house, roast duck is the one I remember best. A rich, crispy layer of skin, brown with the bursting promise of fat. And beneath that, dark meat tasting beefy and oily in the best possible way. I remember eating serving after serving, despite going through a phase of extreme pickiness about meat. We left no trace of flesh on that duck.
Much later, after I had a year of raising chickens under my belt, I began to dream of reproducing that roast duck meal. It seemed reasonable to raise some ducks along with our chicken flock, so we attempted to keep them in the same pen as the chickens. Alas, the sharp-beaked chickens harassed their larger cousins mercilessly, while the ducklings peeped for mercy. A little cardboard separator solved that issue until a new crisis developed: The ducks relentlessly shoveled water out of their waterer with their beaks and onto the floor as they fed and drank. We thought they might want some water to swim in so we provided a little pool, but even more water hit the floor, making a deep, smelly, mucky mess.
When the ducks were out on pasture, they foraged much of their diet with gusto. Rapidly moving bills plucked up bugs, shoots, seeds, and more. We moved their pasture routinely and they rewarded us by eating less grain and more forage than our Cornish Cross meat chickens. The ducks grew larger than the chickens, but also more rapidly than we planned to dispatch them.
Our itinerant slaughterer wasn’t thrilled to see a few ducks at the end of our line of chickens, so he charged us more for their slaughter. He explained that the carcasses wouldn’t be picked clean (pinfeathers and down don’t come off in mechanical plucking, so you have to remove them by hand or hand over an incompletely plucked bird); he said we’d have to take what we received. He was right. Enough pinfeathers were left that preparing our first roast took an additional half an hour of plucking. Our parents bought some of the ducks to support our enterprise, but we couldn’t have sold them to anyone outside filial bonds without embarrassment at our still-feathery product.
The meat we enjoyed was delicious, but the imperfectly cleaned skin detracted from the experience. And I don’t know what Grandma did to make the duck she cooked so tender, but it was apparent that the tough ones I raised got more of a workout during their lives. Memory is imperfect, and I’m certainly not denigrating them—they just didn’t quite match my dream.
Ducks have been popular livestock around the world for thousands of years. Ideally suited to cold areas and moist areas, they thrive effortlessly in climates where chickens require significant care and infrastructure. While most breeds raised in the U.S. are derived from wild mallard ducks, the Muscovy duck (native to South America) is also a popular domestic fowl; they’re more land oriented than mallard-derived ducks and grow larger. According to Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, the best egg-laying duck breeds match or outperform the best chicken-layer breeds, while a fast-growing Pekin duck can gain nearly as much weight from one pound of complete feed as an industrial Cornish Cross meat chicken, while maintaining more capacity to forage effectively.
What, then, makes ducks so rare on American farms, while chickens are completely ubiquitous?
Duck raisers in Vermont who I spoke with all highlighted the challenge of plucking. Unlike chickens, who molt once per year all at once, ducks and other waterfowl maintain a constant shedding and regrowth of feathers so that their insulation and buoyancy are not lost for a period of time. As a result, ducks have many more pinfeathers (short stubs of new feathers growing in). Pinfeathers are not removed in a mechanical plucker and must be tediously pulled by hand with small pliers or scissors.
Ducks also have more down feathers, which increase their cold hardiness but which are also challenging to remove. Itinerant poultry slaughterers, who process a large number of chickens and turkeys on Vermont’s small farms, often charge more for the additional feather removal, making ducks more expensive for the consumer. However, Andy Ware of AlpineGlo Farm in Westminster notes that duck plucking “goes okay if they get scalded at a different temperature than chickens, and you can add dish soap to the scalding water for better feather penetration.”
Predators are another issue noted by duck raisers. Ducks are relatively slower than chickens, and, lacking the ability to roost, are very vulnerable to nocturnal ground predators. Keith Drinkwine at Flatlander Farm in Monkton experienced a weasel attack that left half of his full-grown meat flock dead. James Perry at Perry Family Farm in Northfield struggled with hawks taking ducks out of his pond until he installed some baffle wire to prevent hawk attack.
But ducks offer a few advantages over chickens, for Vermont farmers, in particular. They are happier on damp or swampy land than chickens are, although duck populations need to be limited to the holding capacity of a wet area to prevent environmental degradation. Ducks herd comfortably and can be moved as a group outside fencing more easily than most chickens and although they can be more challenging to market and sell, specialty meats like duck can command a higher price for farmers.
Vermont farmers who have raised ducks enjoy them. Andy Ware at AlpineGlo Farm says, “Ducks are a great addition to the homestead. They are less destructive to your property than chickens, way more entertaining, and lay great eggs, or can be eaten for meat.” At Flatlander Farm, Keith Drinkwine’s favorite attribute of his ducks is their ability to herd across pasture; he has much more fun ushering an orderly group of ducks to a new foraging area than a gang of flapping chickens. And James Perry of Perry Family Farm adds that ducks are easy to raise, but they don’t coexist well with chickens. As with my own experience with ducks, they are defenseless in the face of sharp chicken beaks.
As I searched for Vermont farms that raise duck, I found several that once raised duck, but no longer do. Even farms offering a wide variety of meat and fowl options, such as Tangletown Farm in Glover, do not offer duck (although they once did). Two farms I contacted as potential current sources of duck let me know that they have discontinued raising them for off-farm sale. Andy Ware has cut back production to a homestead scale, citing trouble finding a willing USDA-certified processor. He and his partner, Rachel, would like to raise ducks again, but await improved slaughter resources.
Rocio Clark of Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park told me that she and her husband, John, pretty much ceased raising ducks in 2014. They had raised 200 every year, and had two restaurants plus farmers’ market customers purchasing the birds. But Rocio said they ran into significant issues achieving reliable, clean plucking. She feels confident that there are markets wanting to buy ducks raised on Vermont farms, but regrets that no USDA-inspected slaughter is available to enable Vermont farms to take advantage of the market potential. Even though rules for off-farm chicken slaughter and duck slaughter are the same, ducks present the same plucking challenges for inspected operations as they do for itinerant slaughterers, and for the most part they are not currently welcome at Vermont’s poultryprocessing facilities.
To find out why slaughter facilities reject ducks, I contacted John Smith at Maple Wind Farm, where 20,000 to 25,000 chickens and turkeys are slaughtered each year (some raised on the farm’s Huntington land and others brought from other farms to Maple Wind’s inspected poultry-processing facility in Richmond). John said that plucking ducks the standard way (dunking the deceased bird in hot water to loosen the feathers and allow for rapid feather removal) would take too much staff time due to the additional labor of pinfeather removal by hand, thus putting the cost well past that of chicken slaughter. The alternative method for plucking ducks involves removing the large, outer feathers, dipping the carcass in hot paraffin wax, dipping the carcass in cold water to harden the wax, and then removing all feathers by peeling away the wax. But too low a wax temperature will result in an incomplete pluck, and too hot a temperature will damage the skin of the bird, making it a delicate and logistically challenging alternative to the hot water method.
Some final thoughts about the future of ducks in Vermont came from Keith Drinkwine at Flatlander Farm, who compared them with chickens. Keith estimates that his ducks cost 30 to 40 percent more to raise than Freedom Ranger chickens. For one, ducklings cost almost twice as much as chicks. The two additional weeks ducks require to reach finishing weight adds labor costs to a pasture-based system. And finally, slaughter costs are double those for chickens, if slaughter can be done off-farm at all. The relatively high price of duck at market, combined with low levels of demand, keep duck a specialty rather than a staple meat.
I still love duck, but I haven’t raised ducks in a few years because of the plucking issue. Furthermore, I haven’t seen duck at the store, nor have I purchased any. Some farms in Vermont may gravitate toward raising ducks in the near future, especially if they can find willing itinerant slaughterers. For now, I’m inspired to seek out some hard-to-find local duck and try my grandmother’s roast one more time.
Photo courtesy of Flatlander Farm