Waterfowl used to rule the East End, and their reputation remains.
Just over the railroad tracks in Eastport there’s a mailbox with a duck on it. It’s in front of a white clapboard house not much different from the others on Railroad Avenue. But take a right down the dirt driveway past the old tractors and barns, and one of Long Island’s last duck farms spreads out in front of you like a scene from Old MacDonald’s. There’s a pond, low-slung duck houses, large shade trees and flocks of white Pekin ducks, the breed that once made Long Island synonymous with the dark, fat-crusted poultry served in big city restaurants, fancy boarding houses and Chinatowns coast to coast for near the entirety of the 20th century.
Pekins—bred to grow fat, fast and in a range of conditions—made it to the States from China in 1873, and by 1900 there were 30 duck farms on the East End, whose moderate climate, proximity to water and sandy soil were ideal; by 1940 there were 90 in the towns of Brookhaven, Southampton and Riverhead, most bordering Moriches Bay.
Which is where Paul Massey’s farm on Railroad Avenue sits. It’s been there since the ’40s, when his grandfather bought the first parcel. The farm grew when his father bought the land next door and another on the other side of town. Massey has been working on it his entire life. For 54 years, he has watched and then taken over shepherding 3,000 ducks a week from egg to sell-weight. No days off, no rain days, on the alert for foxes and the occasional mallard that might want to partake in his ducks’ grain ration.
The egg-to-bird chain is a quick one, albeit still done by hand. During the week, Massey collects eggs and puts them in a cooler until he has 3,000. Then they go into the incubators. Some of the incubators look like vintage wooden walk-in refrigerators (except they’re warm) with thermometers and racks that must be turned by hand. Down the row are modern metal incubators with digital readouts and machine-operated racks. Both do the same thing: keep the eggs at the temperature of a brooding duck but with the goal of having them all hatch the same day, which for Massey is on Tuesday evenings. During the week of incubation, Massey candles each egg by shining a light through it to see if it has rotted (in which case it’s cloudy), was never fertilized (clear) or, like about 75 percent of his eggs, shows the spidery lines of a fertilized egg.
“The new breeders are better,” he says of his male ducks. “The old ones get lazy and don’t want to chase the females.” Massey quickly goes over the eggs with the light taking less than a second to assess their viability. His black labs are happy to eat the unfertilized eggs, which often end up on the ground.
So the best time to visit the hatchery is Wednesday mornings when the trays of fertilized eggs become a yellow, writhing powder puff of ducklings—peeping, peeping, peeping as they peck their way through their wombs of calcium to step on each other and poke around with their orange beaks.
The chicks will stay on the farm for six weeks until they reach six to six and a half pounds; they then will be trucked to Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, the only duck processor left on the island, where they’re slaughtered, plucked and cleaned into about five and a half pounds of poultry ready for consumption.
In between, Massey moves each week’s brood through six houses, one for 10-day-olds, one for 17-day-olds and so on, where they lose their downy feathers for the stiff white feathers of an adult. He doesn’t use vaccines, relying on herd immunity, and he sells the duck manure to tree farmers. The ducks are free to go outside during the day, and the five- and six-week-old ducks have ponds to paddle in and are able to take advantage of those shade trees. “Ducks don’t like heat,” says Massey.
Massey’s take on his routine is divided between a square perspective of the past—when the business was so big the farmers had a processing co-op and a grain co-op; when farms were legacy operations with eager inheritors; and when there was no concern about runoff into the creeks—and about the same amount of romance for the future (his ears pricked up at the suggestion of an intern).
With the steady good nature of the laconic farmer whose existence is dictated by a life-cycle other than his own, Massey spends his days in a well-grooved system. His children have moved away, but Long Island duck is still wanted in the marketplace. With its moist, flavorful flesh, duck continues to squeeze chicken out of more discerning kitchens. Maybe the local food movement will keep the farm from the developers.
While most of Long Island’s duck farms have closed, memories remain. David Wilcox’s great-great-grandfather Orville started Oceanic Duck Farm in 1883 on Brushy Neck in Speonk. His father, mother and brother kept it going until 1987—past the 100-year mark—a milestone Wilcox says the Crescent Duck Farm, run by the Corwin family, will soon overtake. Wilcox was a key source for the exhibit on East End duck farms put on by the Westhampton Historical Society last summer. Ask him about it and he’ll start rattling off names of neighbors long out of business and their innovations and defeats. The Indian Island Golf Course in Riverhead used to be the Hubbard Duck Farm. The Warners used to raise their ducks where the Kmart now stands. The names are familiar street names on the East End: Tuttle, Culver, Raynor, Hallock. At the beginning of the 20th century, ducks were good business. But by the ’70s, Wilcox’s grandfather wanted to sell.
“My dad asked, ‘Then what am I going to do?’” says Wilcox. After the two reached a deal, his father invested in a processing plant in Riverhead. But soon environmental regulations and the high cost of feed forced the family to take in ducks from Pennsylvania to keep the plant going seven days per week. When they called it quits in ’87, other farms followed.
“Ducks from the Midwest were cheaper,” he says. “The only thing we had going for us was the name, ‘Long Island duck.’” With the duck farms went ancillary businesses. There was a plant in Speonk on North Phillips Avenue that cleaned and baled feathers for sale, says Wilcox. One customer was an industry in Quogue that made feather pillows. The Quogue Historical Society loaned Westhampton a pillowcase for the exhibit. It wasn’t long before someone viewed the piece and told of having family who worked there.
“We believe this is the first time anyone has ever put together an exhibit about the history of duck farming on Long Island,” says Bob Murray, president of the Westhampton Historical Society. “What surprised me most is how much of the history of the farms is still out there in the dilapidated barns that still exist. These farmers never threw anything away.”
The exhibit included old incubators, endless promotional materials, histories of the families and a newspaper article from 1902 that told the tale of the “duck girls,” the best of whom could pluck 100 chickens in 10 hours and take home five cents per duck. The human-interest angle was one “girl” who put a tag with her name and address around a plucked duck’s neck and ended up with a proposal from a big city buyer. The article states: “The majority of [the duck girls] have rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and that beauty which is an accompaniment to perfect health. A few of them are really lovely; and if rumor can be trusted, the Long Island swains consider the duck girls as perfect ducks in the most endearing sense of the word.”
So there once was romance in the duck business. There were entire communities united by the sound, smell and grace of the flocks, there were cooperatives that relied on each other to keep their businesses going and there were duck girls. David Wilcox notes that the Corwin family’s Crescent Duck Farm always stayed out of these arrangements. “Maybe that’s why they’re still in business today.”