Once-famous duck farming fading on New York's Long Island; just 1 farm will be left in 2015

FLANDERS, N.Y. – When Brooklyn chef Jason Marcus talks about preparing Long Island duck, he can’t help salivating.

“There’s a great balance between the fat and really, really, tender meat,” said the owner of trendy nightspots Traif and Xixa. “It is beautiful when you’re roasting it; the high fat content of the skin really bastes the meat as it cooks.”

Once as synonymous with Long Island as Gatsby mansions, the Long Island duck is quietly fading into the history books. By the end of this year there will be only one duck farm left on Long Island; that’s down from a high of more than 100 in the early 1960s that produced up to 7.5 million succulent birds annually.

Paul Massey, who runs the Chester Massey and Sons’ 26-acre farm in Eastport, says environmental regulations and rising costs for everything from electricity to feed to property taxes are forcing him to shut down his operations at the end of December. Once he closes, that will leave the Crescent Duck Farm in nearby Aquebogue as the last remaining Long Island duck farm.

“It’s a sad thing,” Crescent owner Doug Corwin said. “When I got out of Cornell in 1980, there were still 20 or 25 duck farms and one by one I have seen them all disappear.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Long Island duck farms accounted for about two-thirds of the nation’s duck output. The industry thrived because of Long Island’s abundance of freshwater streams, a friendly climate and proximity to Northeast metropolitan centres.

Today, some of the farmers who once called Long Island home have relocated to larger tracts in Pennsylvania, Indiana and elsewhere. Indiana currently produces the majority of ducks; about 14 million of the 25 million produced annually in the United States.

The 1970s-era Clean Water Act that stiffened regulations on the massive amounts of manure produced by the farms took a toll on duck production, as did higher feed costs and rising prices for farmland near the Hamptons — eastern Long Island’s summer playground for the rich and famous.

“In New York state, the average acre of farmland costs $17,000,” Southampton town councilwoman Bridget Fleming said. “On the south fork of Long Island, it’s $100,000 and some properties can sell as high as over $200,000.”

Another factor was suburban sprawl bumping up against the grittiness that farm life inevitably brings.

“They don’t smell real well,” conceded Geri Solomon, an assistant dean at Hofstra University who has studied the topic.

Corwin, who serves high-end restaurants in Manhattan and throughout the country, said he has been able to survive in part because of a decision to construct a $3.5 million sewage treatment plant that processes the duck manure, preventing it from polluting local waterways. “It was a huge investment and something I hope I never have to do again,” Corwin said.

Noise pollution, at least, isn’t a problem. All of Corwin’s ducks are kept inside brooding barns and there is an eerie quiet as one walks around the grounds, but open a door to one of the barns and the cacophony of thousands of quacking birds is deafening.

Joseph Gergela, head of the Long Island Farm Bureau, says the demise of the ducks is part of the evolution of agriculture on the 120-mile-long island, with other historically entrenched commodities such as potatoes declining for years.

“It’s getting hard for farmers to operate the way we used to,” he said.

The duck is still a recognizable icon on Long Island, where it has lent its name to a pair of sports franchise: a defunct hockey team and a minor league baseball team, and local residents strive to keep its legacy alive.

A roadside edifice called The Big Duck sits on a former duck farm in the hamlet of Flanders. Having once graced a 1987 New Yorker magazine cover, the 20-foot-tall duck is one of Long Island’s best-known landmarks and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside, visitors can purchase duck memorabilia, obtain travel and tourism information, and perhaps learn a little about the legacy of the duck industry. Every December, the local community decorates the Big Duck with festive holiday lights and holds a “duck lighting ceremony” that is a small-town version of the Rockefeller Center tree lighting.

Nearby, a group called “Friends of the Big Duck” has opened historic exhibits in an old Victorian barn. The exhibit features historical videos, a map of where more than 90 farms were located, and old incubators and other items used in duck “processing.”

“It’s very important for me to preserve the heritage of the east end agriculture and duck farming,” said Lisa Dabrowski, co-curator of the exhibit. “My grandfather was a duck farmer. It’s sad. I miss the old days.”