HoneyDel Farm, north of the Lawrence airport, seems a quiet place at first, at least until you head down the path into owner Derek Felch’s pasture. There, insects trill and buzz, hogs snuffle in the soil and sheep occasionally bleat. Chicks cheep in their brooder, and young turkeys yelp softly among themselves.
Then, as you approach the far boundary of Felch’s 10 acres, another sound drowns out everything else: the assertive chatter of 170 almost full-grown Grimaud Hybrid Pekin ducks as they waddle across their large pen, snatch at grasshoppers and splash in kiddie pools. They’ll all soon be headed to a processor, but for now there’s no reason to feel sorry for them.
“We’re raising them in a natural environment and trying to keep them as happy as a duck can be,” says Felch, who operates HoneyDel with his wife, Robin, and their four children.
The Felches are among a growing number of local farmers raising ducks for meat and eggs, meeting increasing demand from chefs and adventurous home cooks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track overall production, but the number of ducks processed at federally inspected plants rose 8 percent over the past five years, reaching 24.6 million in 2013 (the most recent year documented).
The count doesn’t include ducks butchered on the farm or at state-inspected plants, or those kept as layers. It does, however, underscore what Hank Shaw learned about American dining trends while promoting his book “Duck, Duck, Goose.”
“Duck has arrived, at least in restaurants,” says Shaw, who drove nearly 30,000 miles during last year’s 45-state book tour. “People are eating much more duck than they ever have.”
Felch has found ready buyers among Kansas City’s chefs, including those at the Farmhouse, Room 39 and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, as well as Hank Charcuterie in Lawrence and the Lawrence Farmers Market. Ready enough that he upped production to almost 500 ducks this year.
That’s a far cry from where the Felches began. The couple met in Robin Felch’s home state of Iowa while Derek Felch, who is from Minneapolis, was working for a hotel company. They married and then relocated every two years with his job. By 2003, they were tired of moving, so Felch took a new position managing the Hampton Inn in Lawrence. The family rented a house in Tonganoxie and began daydreaming about farming.
“We’d always talked about having a little hobby farm with a couple of chickens, a couple of hogs, a little of this or that,” Robin Felch says.
When they bought their acreage in 2011, they quickly discovered producing “a little” took a lot of resources. So they began selling some of their meat. Their operation now includes Rhode Island Red and Copper Maran chickens, turkeys, Katahdin sheep (a hair breed that doesn’t require shearing) and four heritage breed pigs, in addition to the meat ducks and a few dozen layers.
This year, ducklings began arriving in March. They start in a covered brooder; once they’re fully feathered, they go into movable outdoor pens that are shifted daily to provide the ducks with fresh pasture.
It takes about eight weeks for the ducks to reach market weight, and Felch will process his last batch in December. Like that of other Kansas and Missouri farmers, his duck doesn’t come cheap. Prices for local ducks range from $6 to $8 a pound for whole and usually frozen birds and $12 per pound for boneless breasts.
Why? Because raising high-quality ducks is a costly undertaking, says William Vesecky of Vesecky Family Farms near Baldwin City, Kan.
His is a three-generation family farm that produces row crops, cattle and goats, as well as 7,000 chickens, 600 turkeys and a few geese each year. Vesecky added ducks in 2005 when his daughter wanted to show them in 4-H.
“Ducks are my least profitable bird,” says Vesecky, who also works for the Kansas Department of Transportation. “If we weren’t raising them for show, we probably wouldn’t do it.”
Vesecky maintains a flock of about 30 breeding ducks so he can hatch his own, which takes both time and money. Buying ducklings is no bargain, either; they usually cost twice as much as chicks, sometimes more.
Heritage breeds like the Exhibition Rouen, Rouen and Aylesbury ducks Vesecky raises grow more slowly than the more familiar white Pekin. All of his poultry is also pastured, meaning the birds live outside in large pens seeded with sudangrass and stocked with self-feeders and watering pools.
“We don’t have them lined up in front of a feeder,” says Vesecky, who sells duck to Hank Charcuterie and 715 in Lawrence, as well as to individuals. “They wander the pens, have greens to pick from, eat bugs, stretch their wings and enjoy life.”
That means Vesecky’s ducks take about 20 weeks to mature, but the extra time isn’t his biggest expense. That would be processing.
Only two poultry plants within driving distance of Vesecky’s and Felch’s farms accept ducks. They’re an unpopular bird to handle, thanks to their pin feathers (immature feathers that grow in at about seven-week intervals) and a layer of insulating down.
While that combination allows ducks to withstand harsh weather, it makes them notoriously hard to pluck. That’s why ANCO Poultry Processing in Garnett, Kan., charges $10 to prepare each duck, compared to $2.55 per chicken.
“That’s a huge jump, but it literally takes us that much longer on a duck,” Rosanna Bauman says. Her family owns both ANCO and Bauman’s Cedar Valley Farm, which also sells duck eggs in Lawrence.
With that kind of price tag, there’s only one way to approach local duck — get the most out of it that you can.
“When you spend $40 on a duck, you don’t want to use it for just one meal,” says Ted Habiger, chef/owner of Room 39. “You want to stretch it through a few meals.”
Roasting a duck whole is tricky, because the breast and legs cook at different rates, chefs say. That’s why Habiger prefers cooking the breast and legs separately, for two separate meals. Stock made with the carcass provides a perfect base for soups, risotto and other dishes, while duck fat — and there’s usually plenty — is considered kitchen gold.
“The fat is a huge plus,” says Howard Hanna, chef/owner of the Rieger. “When you roast potatoes, caramelize onions or fry something, it adds a really awesome flavor.”
But whatever you do, don’t treat duck like chicken. Think beef instead, cookbook author Shaw says. The dark, succulent duck breast is similar to steak in that it can be seared over high heat to medium rare (an internal temperature of 130 to 140 degrees).
The fattier, tougher legs and wings are more akin to brisket, Shaw says. They do best with long, moist cooking; Shaw especially likes braising legs with caramelized onions and leeks. But the most celebrated approach has to be the French preservation method of making confit, where duck legs are salted and then poached in duck fat until the meat is savory and fall-off-the-bones tender.
“There are thousands of ways to do duck, but confit. … if I had one last meal, it would be duck confit,” says Michael Foust, chef/owner of the Farmhouse.
Duck also lends itself to charcuterie, something Vaughn Good takes full advantage of at his Hank Charcuterie (a “hank” is a length of sausage casing). Good turns Felch’s and Vesecky’s ducks into confit, rillettes, pate and other products and sells fresh and smoked duck breast.
Buying local duck by the breast makes for an easy introduction, but there’s no reason to shy away from a whole bird, Shaw says.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “It’s just a bird. You don’t have to be scared of it.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Star's Food section and she writes a monthly cocktail and spirits column.
Consumers are scrambling to find duck eggs
Duck eggs were once an oddity, something farmers ate themselves because no one wanted to buy them. No more. Demand has surged, and duck eggs are the latest chefs darling.
“I buy every duck egg I can find,” says Michael Foust, chef/owner of the Farmhouse in Kansas City. It’s not always easy, given that ducks tend to lay more eggs in the spring and fewer in autumn and winter. When they are available, Foust likes adding them to biscuits, breads and gnocchi.
“A lot of the Old World bakers would much rather use duck eggs than chicken because of the flavor and the fat,” says Foust, who buys his from Green Gate Family Farms in Wheatland, Mo., and other area farms.
The average duck egg is about the same size as a jumbo chicken egg, and it does indeed contain more fat, especially the “good” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Duck eggs also have twice as much iron, six times the vitamin B-12 and higher levels of more than a dozen vitamins and minerals than chicken eggs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database.
“Duck eggs are amazing,” says Linda Hezel of Prairie Birthday Farm in rural Clay County. She is expanding her flock to supply area chefs.
The higher yolk-to-white ratio, more viscous texture and usually free-range provenance also makes duck eggs more flavorful, says Ted Habiger, chef/owner of Room 39. He likes poaching them in red wine, adding them to flan or simply serving them fried or scrambled.
Consumers are also clamoring for duck eggs, says Rosanna Bauman, whose family owns Bauman’s Cedar Valley Farm near Garnett, Kan. She sells eggs from her Rouen and Khaki Campbell ducks at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence and off the farm, and customers who are allergic to chicken eggs are especially eager to try them. (Note: The nonprofit patient support network Food Allergy Research & Education recommends individuals with an egg allergy also avoid duck eggs. Readers should consult their doctor before consuming them.)
As lovely as duck eggs are, they’re also expensive. Local prices range from $6 to $9.50 a dozen, largely because of the inherent cost of raising ducks. Ducklings are at least twice as expensive to buy as chicks, and they eat more feed as they grow.
Ducks get a free ride during the part of the year when they’re not laying, and they’re notorious for muddying their pens, digging holes in search of worms and generally making a mess of things — in other words, being ducks. But raising them isn’t entirely about making money, says Klaus Karbaumer of Karbaumer Farms near Platte City.
“We have them for the eggs and for the fun,” he says.
Karbaumer’s 20 mallard and Rouen ducks live in a pen with shade trees, kiddie pools and plenty of grass, bugs and vegetables left over from the farming operation he and his wife, Lee, own. Each evening, Karbaumer calls them into their hutch by singing a nursery rhyme from his native Bavaria.
In “Duck, Duck, Goose” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), author Hank Shaw roasts, grills, barbecues, smokes, braises and sauces duck with flavors from around the globe. But he doesn’t just stick with the main cuts. He also makes the most of the bones and fat. You can too, with these guidelines from Shaw and local chefs.
Seared duck breast
“Duck is beautiful,” says Michael Foust, chef/owner of the Farmhouse. “If you do it right, it melts in your mouth.” Here’s how to cook the breast properly.
▪ Method: Score the skin in a crosshatch pattern, being careful not to cut the meat. Salt on both sides and leave at room temperature for 15 minutes to an hour.
Place duck breast skin-side down in a cold sauté pan, place the pan on the stove and turn the heat to medium. Cook skin-side down until 3/4 of the fat layer has been rendered and the skin is golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Turn the breast over, salt the skin again and cook until it reaches medium-rare, another 3 to 5 minutes.
Transfer the duck breast to a cutting board, loosely tent with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice crosswise and serve skin-side up over a small pool of your favorite sauce.
Duck stock makes a rich base for soups, sauces, risotto and other dishes. Roasting the bones first deepens the flavor, says Howard Hanna, chef/owner of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. This is Hanna’s method. For a recipe with more complex flavors, go to Hank Shaw’s blog (Honest-Food.net) and search for “dark duck broth recipe.”
▪ Method: Place duck carcass or bones in a roasting pan and roast in a hot oven. “The time and temp aren’t important,” Hanna says. “Just get them brown and smelling good.”
Place the roasted bones in a stockpot and add chopped carrots, celery and onions; some garlic and a bay leaf. Cover everything with cold water. Bring to a simmer, being careful not to let the stock boil. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
Simmer for several hours, until the stock is flavorful, and then remove pot from heat. Allow stock to cool and then strain. Transfer stock to clean containers. Refrigerate for 1 week or freeze for up to 9 months.
Local ducks are usually fat ducks, which is actually a very good thing. “Duck fat is so clean-tasting and delicious and flavorful,” says Ted Habiger, chef/owner of Room 39. It’s ideal for roasting potatoes, sautéing vegetables and replacing other fats in countless other recipes. Shaw even uses it to make hollandaise sauce, warm vinaigrettes and pie crusts.
It’s also (relatively) healthy, being lower in saturated fat than butter and high in unsaturated fat, according to gourmet meat purveyor D’Artagnan’s website.
When roasting a whole duck, prick the skin all over (being careful not to pierce the meat) so the fat can render while the duck roasts. Collect and strain excess fat for future use. You can also render any fatty bits or skin you trim from the body cavity openings of a whole duck. Here’s Habiger’s method:
▪ Method: Cut any trimmed skin or fat into small pieces. Preheat an oven to 250 degrees. Place fatty bits in a shallow baking dish and slowly roast until all the fat has been rendered and the skin is crisp (and edible). Strain fat and store in a clean jar. It can be refrigerated for up to 6 months or frozen up to a year.
Another tip: line a cookie sheet with waxed paper, use a small cookie dough scoop to scoop pre-measured quantities of duck fat, place on the waxed paper and freeze until solid; transfer to a freezer bag or container.
Where to buy
Duck and duck eggs are seasonal items that are sometimes in short supply. Always call to check availability.
▪ Bauman’s Cedar Valley Farm
(duck and duck eggs at the farm and at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence)
▪ The Community Mercantile
(duck and duck eggs)
901 Iowa St., Lawrence
▪ Green Gate Family Farm
Green Gate also sells its eggs at the Brookside Farmers Market (BrooksideFarmersMarket.com), open through Nov. 22
▪ Hank Charcuterie
(fresh and smoked duck breast, duck charcuterie)
1900 Massachusetts St., Lawrence
▪ HoneyDel Farm
(duck and duck eggs)
HoneyDel also sells its products at the Lawrence Farmers Market (LawrenceFarmersMarket.com), open through Nov. 22
▪ Local Pig
(duck and duck eggs)
2618 Guinotte Ave., Kansas City
▪ Vesecky Family Farms
Baldwin City, Kan.
Duck Egg Cake With Rosemary
Duck eggs and duck fat both figure into this easy, sweet-and-savory recipe from “Duck, Duck, Goose” (Ten Speed Press, 2013)
Makes 1 loaf cake (4-6 servings)
Unsalted butter or duck fat, for greasing
4 duck eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
7 tablespoons duck fat, melted
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Healthy pinch of kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan with butter.
Crack the duck eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar, and beat with a whisk until well combined and slightly frothy. Drizzle in the oil and duck fat while stirring the mixture. Once the fat is well incorporated into the mixture, sprinkle the rosemary on top.
In a second bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using the whisk, stir the flour into the egg-fat mixture until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes. Stick a toothpick into the center of the cake, and if it comes out clean, the cake is ready. If not, bake for another 10 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, then turn it out onto the rack. Slice and eat warm or at room temperature.
Per serving, based on 4: 717 calories (53 percent from fat), 43 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 641 milligrams cholesterol, 71 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 499 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.