Duck farming isn’t always what it’s quacked up to be.
It’s not that ducks aren’t cute. The week-old Grimaud Pekin ducklings tottering around Derek Felch’s small backyard pen are downright precious, with their fluffy buttercup-yellow bodies – the perfect size for scooping up into warm palms – and pale pink beaks emitting the gentlest of quacks. Derek’s 9-year-old son, Hunter, expertly catches one in his hands and runs a thumb along its head, and the delight on his freckled face is infectious.
The ducks are adorable, to be sure, but that’s not the reason Derek bought his first ducklings and started HoneyDel Farm in 2011. The other factor guiding him was the knowledge that there weren’t a lot of local duck farmers, and he had the notion to carve out a comfortable place in the market for his business, located just a few miles outside of Lawrence, Kansas.
“There's a lot of chicken and beef and pig, but not a lot of people doing ducks,” Derek says. “After we raised them, we realized why,” he continues with a laugh. Derek is a jolly sort of fellow – everything he says has a wry tinge, and he still speaks with the vowel-elongating Upper Midwestern accent etched in him during his youth in Minnesota.
Ducks are difficult, he explains, more so than the average farm animal. Ducks love water, and while they can be raised without a pond, they won’t be happy unless they’re wet. That means that the outdoor hose is used to fill a kiddie pool twice weekly and several five-gallon buckets at least once a day (in the winter, when it’s below freezing, the Felches haul water from their bathroom tub).
It’s the butchering, though, that can make duck farming a hassle. The Felches take their seven-to-eight-week-old ducks to Anco Poultry Processing in Garnett, Kansas – one of only two plants in the state that processes duck.
“No one likes to clean them,” Derek says. “They have windows of feather growth, and about every seven weeks, they start to have rows of pinfeathers. If you hit them just right, they’ll clean fairly beautifully. The thing is that they’re water-resistant, so normally, you use heat and water to loosen the feathers and clean chickens and turkeys, but since duck [feathers] are designed to resist water, it doesn’t work as quickly.”
The involved and lengthy butchering process, Derek says, means that he pays about five times as much to process one duck as it costs to process one chicken. That means his ducks are an expensive product to sell – which makes the whole business a good deal more demanding than he or his wife, Robin, envisioned six years ago.
“We were really naive when we started,” Derek says. “I didn't grow up in the country, but Robin did, and we felt that acreage out here would be fun. I had a mentor when I was younger, and he raised three cows, a pig and some chickens every spring and butchered everything in the fall, and I thought that was beautiful.
“Plus, I like business, and I thought, ‘What if we got other people to buy our food? We could basically eat for free.’” He laughs. “We didn’t know anything, and we definitely didn't picture this.”
Life on the Farm
The Felches raise other animals on their 10 acres, too – turkeys, grass-fed lamb and free-range chickens – although ducks are their main stock. There’s very little separation between the house itself and the farm: Two groups of ducks – about 100 ducklings up to three weeks old and another 100 mature fowl up to eight weeks old – are penned separately in a clearing that would probably be considered more of a lawn than a field. Another 100 or so laying ducks roam around the vicinity of the house, all between 1 and 5 years old.
Three of the Felches' four children are still at home: Hunter, 12-year-old Myka and 18-year old Maggie. The kids split farm chores: carrying buckets of various animal feed (including a custom ration that comes from Perry Milling, a family-run mill in Perry, Kansas), refilling water containers, ushering the ducklings out of the brooder in the morning and back into it at night. Spring and fall are the Felches' two main breeding seasons, when they have close to 300 ducklings.
“The ducklings will live in the brooder about two to three weeks,” Derek says, gesturing to a squat little greenhouse full of heat lamps covered in white tarp at the edge of the fence. “Brooding the ducklings is the hardest thing. For those first few weeks, baby birds can’t regulate their own heat, so they need the heat lamps, and that’s the brooding stage – but ducks are particularly messy. They like to take water with their beak and throw it on the back of their head, and they just get water everywhere. It makes keeping the brooder clean and dry a nightmare.”
Ensuring that the brooder stays in tip-top shape is also one of the kids' duties. Farm work starts early – most mornings at about 6am or 7am – and doesn’t let up until long after school is out. Aside from Derek and Robin, the Felch kids are the only helping hands on the farm.
“I’ve had some issues with those employees,” Derek says, laughing. “They’ve tried to unionize on me, but they enjoy it probably half the time. The Amish figure labor as part of their profit, and we've adopted a little of that as our philosophy. This may be the hardest physical labor they’ll ever do, and they'll appreciate that later.”
There are some perks to being farm kids, Robin adds. For instance, getting front-row seats to the birth of lambs, which then need to be bottle-fed; watching incubated eggs hatch; and taking chances with rare breeds, like the Crested Polish chicken, with its famous mohawk and its unreliable egg laying, that was purchased for Hunter, who wanted to raise “the weird-looking chicken.”
The children are also learning about the costs and economics of running a farm. When the Felches returned from a family vacation over Labor Day weekend this year, they learned their storage freezer had suffered an outlet failure. This meant that they lost around 90 percent of the product they were ready to sell – some 50 processed chickens and duck, three whole pigs and lamb and mutton. The revenue loss alone is significant to a small-scale farm like HoneyDel – an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 worth of ruined product – but what’s more is that the Felches lost food they had planned to eat through the winter. It’ll be the first time in years, Robin says, that she’ll be back at the grocery store, purchasing meat.
“With the freezers going down, we explain to the kids how that affects them, and they get it,” Derek says. “As much as a 9-year-old can get it.”
The HoneyDel Way
For Derek, the economics of farming are ever-present, thanks to a little family influence. He was born a “city slicker,” he says with a laugh, but he’s got country roots. Summers were spent with his uncles, Lowell and Delmar, who taught Derek about farming and tasked him with chores like driving a tractor and milking cows. Delmar and his wife, Carlé, previously operated a farm called HoneyDel. When Derek started his own farm, he named it HoneyDel to honor his uncles and their love of farming.
“My uncle Delmar used to lament the plight of the family farm as farms got bigger and more commercial,” Derek says. “This [was] back in the ’70s and ’80s, and he used to say, ‘As the farms go, so goes the country.’ That’s always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve been reminded of a lot about that as we've started this process and learned about what people do to keep small farms alive.”
The Felches are transparent about that steep learning curve. The regulated aspects of raising, butchering and selling meat and animal products weren’t even a thought when they got started with the farm – and Derek says that pricing those products comes with its own complications.
“People are used to cheap food, just like we were,” he says. “I used to go to the farmers’ market and think about how ridiculous it was to see chickens sold at $4 a pound when we were used to seeing it at the store for 79 cents. But then we butchered some animals ourselves, and it was a lot of work – an incredible amount of work.”
Profit and loss are the realities of any business, but when it comes to farms, especially small, independent, family-run farms like HoneyDel, the margins can be razor-thin.
“The risk sits entirely with the farmer,” he continues. “An order falling through – that’s a big blow for us. The freezer going [out], we’re grappling with right now. Any disaster becomes a large disaster.”
What’s important is having a support system when disaster does strike – and at those times, the Felches can count on some of the most recognizable restaurants in the area. Room 39, The Rieger and The Farmhouse in Kansas City all rely on HoneyDel for duck, as does Lawrence’s own Hank Charcuterie.
“What we’ve learned to appreciate is that the chefs and the owners of those restaurants commit to taking a lower profit because they’re committed to supporting local farms – which means a more expensive product for them,” Derek says. “We don’t take that for granted, and we appreciate the customers making the choice to support those restaurants, too.”
Duck, Duck, Dinner
The Felches raise Grimaud Pekin ducks, a breed that's a hybrid of two different French strains from Grimaud Frères farms in France. The Felches chose the breed for its tendency to grow quickly and lay a good amount of eggs – as well as for its reputation as an excellent meat source. The ducks are known for their milder flavor compared to breeds like Moulard or Muscovy. The Felches frequently roast whole duck, something they say their Grimaud Pekin ducks are ideal for.
The local consensus is overwhelmingly positive, too.
“I like the HoneyDel duck opposed to some other local duck farmers because they have a good ratio of meat to fat,” says Vaughn Good, chef-owner of Hank Charcuterie. “Some ducks and heritage-breed ducks are super fatty – you almost get more fat than meat. Duck fat is awesome, and we use it for confit and roasting things in, but if you’re going to serve a duck breast, you don’t want it to be 50 percent fat and 50 percent meat.”
Howard Hanna, chef-owner at Kansas City’s The Rieger, agrees: “It has a great flavor and texture and it's a little leaner than the average Pekin,” he says. “The proportion of fat to meat is what makes it good.” On Hanna’s menu, HoneyDel ducks appear in various dishes – roasted and stuffed into pasta or confited on the charcuterie board.
It’s not only the flavor of the duck that sold Hanna on HoneyDel, though.
“HoneyDel are just great people,” he says. “They're nice, I like them and I want to support them. Also, for my growth as a chef, I went from seeking out local products strictly because of flavor and thinking that because it's closer to us, it's most likely to be fresh. Now, I'm trying to go deeper than that and really think about our food system in general, and how my purchasing decisions impact that. It's not just about helping Derek Felch – it's about him buying grain locally and processing his ducks locally, and that's what we need to have regionally as a food system. It's not just farms and chefs at the two ends of the spectrum, and by supporting HoneyDel, I'm supporting a local mill and a processor.”
The ducks get put to use in many of Good's dishes at Hank Charcuterie, as well, including the duck legs confit on the dinner menu and smoked duck ham. Like Hanna, Good believes in supporting the local farm for both its quality products and ethical animal husbandry.
“I appreciate that they’re humanely raised and pasture-raised,” he says. “[The Felches] put animal welfare at the forefront of what they do, and they’re super easy to work with. To me, it’s really important to support local farmers – that’s keeping your dollars in the local economy and helping out instead of using imported products.”
The HoneyDel ducks do appear happy, and perhaps none more so than the laying hens who cozy up to the base of the Felches’ house or cluster around shady trees. Plenty of their eggs end up as ducklings, but they can also end up just as easily in Robin’s frying pan. Duck eggs have long been coveted for their large yolks and rich flavor – Robin heartily vouches for their baking properties – but the Felches didn’t originally intend to get into the egg business.
“We kind of stumbled into duck eggs,” Derek says. “We can only process so many ducks at a time, so we couldn’t keep hatching them. But ducks don't lay as consistently as chickens do, so we don’t have a regular supply of them to stock anywhere.”
For now, the family’s duck eggs are sold to local restaurants and are – like the rest of the HoneyDel product line – available Saturday mornings at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market, where the Felches have had a tent for the past several years.
“That was the weirdest thing when we started selling at the farmers’ market,” Robin says. “It was surprising that even people at the market would ask us if we raise the ducks ourselves. The chefs do a good job of telling our story in their restaurants, but I think sometimes people don't realize what goes into the small farms that these restaurants support.”
Derek agrees, adding that they had to overcome a daunting learning curve to get to where they are today. He gestures toward the swarm of pale yellow and white feathered birds behind him. His words are punctuated by soft quacking.
“We’re out here every day, trying to keep these guys safe from predators and elements that would take them away from us," Derek says. "We’re involved with their lives from beginning to end. It’s a struggle – more than we ever thought it would be – but our eyes have been opened. There are few things more rewarding than getting to enjoy food that you raise and care for yourself, and when you think about that, it’s easy to be inspired.”