Duck Industry Adjusts to Curve Balls
Donald Wentzel, a feed mill owner who had worked as a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, decided in the 1950s that the modest U.S. duck meat industry, then largely centered on New York’s Long Island, was based in the wrong place. He thought it would make more sense to raise the birds on less expensive real estate in a place where the corn and soybeans used in the birds’ feed was grown.
Donald Wentzel, a feed mill owner who had worked as a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, decided in the 1950s that the modest U.S. duck meat industry, then largely centered on New York’s Long Island, was based in the wrong place.
He thought it would make more sense to raise the birds on less expensive real estate in a place where the corn and soybeans used in the birds’ feed was grown. So in 1958, Wentzel started Maple Leaf Farms.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “The first year that they were in operation, they raised probably a couple hundred thousand heads of ducks. Today, we raise around 10 million ducks, we distribute those ducks in all 50 states and about 40 different countries around the world.”
Now based in Leesburg, Indiana, Maple Leaf, along with Culver Duck, a nearby competitor with company roots on Long Island, have helped push Indiana to the number one spot in the nation when it comes to raising duck, selling 14.5 million a year as of 2017, almost 60 percent of the nation’s total.
Scott Tucker, grandson of Maple Leaf Farms founder Donald Wentzel, who died in 1968, says about 15 percent of the company’s duck meat is exported to other countries whose citizens are bigger consumers of duck, but the company also sells eggs and ducks to hatcheries elsewhere in the world.
Americans eat only an average of a third of a pound of duck meat a year whereas China’s citizens eat an average of more than eight pounds.
Greg Tyler, president, USA Poultry & Egg Export Council: “The U.S. is ranked number 11th on the global scene as far as producers. The top duck producers in the world are China, European Union, Myanmar, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan. But despite being 11th as far as production, we are the sixth largest exporter of duck meat.”
Tucker says the U.S. public’s misconception that farm-raised duck may taste gamey like wild duck has been a barrier to additional growth in the U.S.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “We use solely the white Pekin breed of duck. That’s probably 90 percent of the ducks that are bred in the world…As we’ve developed our breeds, we’ve helped make the product leaner. And you know, the feeding rations that we give the duck really give it a very almost sweet flavor to it, very different and it’s unique relative to chicken…It’s just something that we watch very carefully because we think that’s one of our competitive advantages.”
Tucker’s father, Terry, the company’s CEO for 47 years, decided in the 1970s that Maple Leaf could overcome Americans’ uncertainty about how to cook duck by offering some product pre-roasted. The half roast duck, which can be reheated in an oven, has since become a big seller, representing about 30 percent of meat sales.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “We were the pioneers of taking and cooking duck in order to provide it for people in a more convenient way. This was my father’s innovation and he was way way ahead of his time when he did this: he built an entire facility back in 1975 to begin cooking ducks.”
Still, it’s the restaurant industry that continues to purchase the majority - about 60 percent - of Maple Leaf’s duck meat. As with many other industries, this meant the temporary COVID-related shutdown of so many restaurants in 2020 and ‘21, threw off normal operations at Maple Leaf.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “We needed to go into a major shift in terms of how we were producing, trying to shift more of those products into the retail trade. So we not only had to shift what it was going into, shift the packaging, develop new packaging, develop, you know, new products.”
Tucker believes labor will continue to be one of their biggest challenges going forward, as their home county, Kosciusko, has an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “Which basically means that anybody who wants to work is already working.”
While Maple Leaf was able to navigate the labor shortage that followed the pandemic by working with a company that arranges for international workers, Tucker thinks they will still need other long-term answers. The company installed some automation equipment in 2019 but has plans for more in the coming years.
Scott Tucker, co-president, Maple Leaf Farms: “The way that we’re looking at contending with that, like a lot of other poultry processors, is looking at automation, looking at ways that we can take our reliance on the workforce that may or may not show up today, you know, out of the equation… We’re always getting a curve ball from one day to the next. You just, you just learn how to hit the curve.”
By Colleen Bradford Krantz, firstname.lastname@example.org