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Long Island Duck Farms Fly the Coop : Traditional Industry Fades as Producers Sell to Developers

August 11, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

EASTPORT, N.Y. — For more than a century, the duckling has been a symbol of Long Island.

But, like oranges in California's Orange County, duck farms on Long Island are fast disappearing, and for the same reasons: houses, condominiums and apartments.

Residential land on Long Island is much more valuable than agricultural land.

David Tuttle, 40, stood recently outside one of the 40-foot-wide, 500-foot-long duck barns on the farm that he and his father Emory, 61, operate here in this Long Island community and observed:

"These barns were built by my great-grandfather back in 1912, rejuvenated by my grandfather in the 1930s. They have never been insulated, never heated. We could pour a lot of money into the barns converting them to environmental-controlled structures, but who knows how much longer we will be raising ducks.

"Ducks have been a good living for my family for many generations. We have done very well. We can't complain. But we could walk away from here, selling to developers, and be much better off money-wise."

Many Long Island duck farmers have done just that in the last 15 years--making huge profits by selling their land to developers. Twenty years ago, there were 40 duck farms in the Eastport area, 75 miles east of Manhattan. Today only 17 Long Island duck farms are left.

In 1984, gross sales for Long Island duck farms totaled about $20 million. Last year's sales were $15 million and sales this year are expected to be down another $2 million to $3 million.

Yet demand for Long Island ducklings far exceeds supply, the farmers say, and the reduction in sales volume is entirely the result of producers getting out of the business and selling their land to developers.

"We're inundated with Mercedes and BMWs, with people in pink-colored shorts having New York mentalities. This is no longer an agricultural area. Long Islanders don't want duck farms next door to their property," lamented Tuttle, whose family has farmed on the island since the early 1700s.

Tuttle is one of 15 duck farmers who own and operate the Long Island Duck Farmers Cooperative. Despite the demand for ducklings, the co-op has fallen on hard times, and some farmers see its end on the horizon.

Because of reduced membership, Tuttle admitted, the co-op has efficiency problems. "It worked fine when we had 40 producer-members. Now, the cost of processing our ducks is eating into our profits," he explained.

The co-op receives $1 a pound for its frozen processed ducks. Of that, the farmer-members receive 65 cents to 70 cents a pound with the remainder covering the cost of processing and marketing.

However, the two Long Island duck producers--Crescent Duck and South Shore Duckling--who do not belong to the cooperative reported record sales last year of nearly $4 million each. They breed, process and market their own ducks and insist that they have no plans to sell out to developers.

"Long Island ducklings are a premium item demanded by white tablecloth gourmet restaurants, Chinese and other Asiatic eating places across the nation," said Doug Corwin, descendant of Long Island farmers dating back to 1640, whose family owns Crescent Duck. "We intend to make sure Long Island ducklings remain available for many years to come."

Corwin said the entire production of Long Island ducklings for many years has been geared to the restaurant trade. "We have no interest in the American housewife who may buy two ducks a year in the supermarket," he said. "Our concern is that chef who cooks 10 ducks a night and knows a better duck when he sees one."

Restaurants feature Long Island ducklings that were sent to market at the age of seven weeks weighing 8 1/2 to 9 pounds live and 4 to 5 1/2 pounds frozen. The restaurants pay a premium price of $1 a pound, while the housewife usually buys mass-produced ducks at 59 cents to 69 cents a pound in the supermarket.

But most supermarket ducks are not the top-quality Long Island ducklings demanded by restaurant chefs and gourmet diners, the Long Island duck producers insist. Supermarket ducks, they say, are grown mainly in the Southeast and Midwest, though a few come from Long Island, and there are some duck farms in other parts of the country, including California.

Selling Out to Developers

Tom Jurgielewicz, along with his brother Tim and father Ted, runs South Shore Duckling Co., a duck farm that has been in the family for several generations. According to him, "the problem with our industry is not selling the product or getting a good price. We have no problem with either. It is pure and simple.

"Our farms--traditionally dotting the coastal shoreline of Long Island--are on prime land. Duck farmers have been getting as high as $50,000 to $100,000 an acre for their land. Can you blame them for selling out?"

Meanwhile, duck figurines adorn desks and counters at the Long Island Duck Farmers Cooperative here, and a "Have You Hugged Your Duck Today?" bumper sticker hangs above a reception desk.

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