You've likely heard of heirloom tomatoes, but have you heard about heritage birds? It's a similar concept - older and often less commercially popular breeds that are vanishing because they've been largely left behind by industrial agriculture.
As part of KLCC's Special Issues series on food and agriculture, reporter Jes Burns went to Creswell and met a pair of young farmers who are making it their business to breed and promote a rare heritage variety of duck.
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Saving Heritage Poultry Breeds: The Ancona Duck from Jes Burns on Vimeo.
Reporter: Thirty-year-old Evan Gregoire stands in a garage on Boondockers Farm in Creswell. In front of him is his new prize possession: a massive mid-century incubator -- taller than the average refrigerator and twice as deep.
"We're kind of putting the final finishing touches on all the installation. There's water, power coming in from the top. There are different drainage pans... so we can do our own stock in the Willamette Valley here for different rare breeds."
This old Jamesway incubator can hold and hatch 2000 duck eggs at a time. In many ways, it will allow Evan and his partner Rachel Kornstein to help keep one rare breed of duck -- the ancona -- from disappearing.
Ancona ducks were first developed in Great Britain in the early 19th century. They're only about 6 lbs full-grown. The ducks have orange and black feet. Their base layer is white, but it's the other coloration that makes the breed, say the two farmers.
"They're the only breed that has the random markings."
"Like a pinto horse."
This mottled plumage in black, silver, blue, lavender or chocolate has been a factor in the breed not being recognized by the American Poultry Association.
"To do that we would need to show 300 birds that looked identical. We can't show you two that have identical markings."
Nonetheless, the farmers are making a go at rearing ancona ducks as a significant part of their livelihood -- selling their blue and cream colored eggs, the chicks and the male ducks for meat. Sitting on about 4 acres of converted hay field, Boondockers Farm has a flock of about 60 ancona with 40 laying hens protected by two Great Pyrenees dogs.
This seemingly small number of ducks makes up a significant percentage of the total remaining in North America. In the latest count in 2000, there were only 128 breeding Ancona -- meaning their health was in critical condition.
But "critical" status is still much more promising than "extinct." That's what it appeared the ancona duck was in 1980. It is Corvallis farmer David Holderread who can be credited with saving it from being lost forever.
"I mean, we found a pair originally. And every ancona in this country goes back to that pair."
Holderread is probably the foremost authority on heritage ducks and geese in the country. In Evan Gregoire's words, he's a "Rock Star." He owns Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center, which sits on a semi-rural road near Corvallis. His work with the ancona began 30 years ago.
"Normally, you would think that a breed could not be brought back by a single pair plus an outcross to one other single bird. They were extremely genetically clean. We have not yet found a deleterious gene in them. It's probably the only line of birds I've ever worked with where that's true."
In all, Holderread works with about 60 varieties of rare geese and ducks. Some of these breeds were once plentiful in the US, but industrial agriculture has taken a toll on the genetic pool. Jeannette Beranger is a Research Manager at the American Livestock Breed Conservancy in North Carolina.
"With the highly-refined breeding, meaning they breed the best of the best with the best of the best. And you create these amazing animals that have incredible output in a short period of time. But with that can creep in problems -- many of which we don't even know what could happen."
Some things that have happened include lack of disease resistance, loss of longevity and the ability to survive in a challenging environment. Industrial turkeys have lost their ability to mate naturally.
"At all, it's impossible. And if it wasn't for artificial insemination in one generation, you would lose industrial turkey, which makes up about 90% of all turkey production."
Holderread says industrial poultry production plans about five years ahead. His breeding program is designed to maintain population health 100 years into the future. But this is not a benchmark he will witness. After working 50 years with waterfowl, Holderread received a request from his wife Millie.
"She turns 60 this year, and she said, 'You know, rather than spending 16 hours a day with birds, I'd like to do some other stuff.' So we're starting to cut back, especially when we can find someone who are interested in continuing the breeding end of it and are enthusiastic."
That's where Evan Gregoire and Rachel Kornstein fit into the story. Earlier this spring, David Holderread found the enthusiasm he was looking for in the couple and passed off all of his prized ancona breeding stock. The resulting flock now resides at Boondockers farm.
Evan and Rachel both worked in the restaurant industry in Los Angeles before making their way up to Oregon.
"We're basically just trying to create the most amazing stuff you've seen in your entire life."
"The things I would drool over, that what I want to create for other people."
They took their philosophies of stewardship, localism and nutrition and started producing and marketing heirloom seeds. This grew into an interest in heritage farm animals and a desire to help preserve rare breeds while providing the highest quality of life for their animals.
But there's an irony about preserving domesticated farm animals: if people don't eat them or their products, the breeds will not survive. Finding and expanding the market for ancona ducks is what Evan and Rachel spend much of their time doing.
Some of their biggest clients so far have been restaurants. Chefs, like Gabriel Gil at The Rabbit Bistro in Eugene, are a prime target.
"Here we've actually gone out of our way to showcase things that most people don't usually use. You know some of the stuff that's really been ignored for a long time."
Locally raised duck and duck eggs really fit into that philosophy. In the small cramped kitchen of the restaurant, Chef Gil is preparing an unconventional salad -- a layer of parmesan puree framed with blood sausage rounds and haystacks of fresh asparagus tossed in vinaigrette. Then to top it all off, one of Boondockers' duck eggs, fried in butter until the whites are just opaque and the large unbroken yolk is a soft deep yellow:
"The richness of the duck egg and especially like the viscosity of the yolk. It adds such a depth of flavor."
This dish is actually on the Rabbit's menu -- but with a chicken egg.
"To me, this dish truly deserves a duck egg because the egg is really the star of the show."
But Chef Gil says his ability to get good local duck eggs is inconsistent. Evan, who's been in the background watching the Chef work, swoops in and strikes up a tentative deal to provide the Rabbit Bistro with duck meat and eggs and other produce off the farm.
This kind of farmer to chef communication is increasing as restaurants all over the country push for fresh, responsibly-harvested local ingredients. As a result Evan and Rachel plan to expand their standing ancona flock to more than 200 birds by the end of the year. But they don't think they'll stay on this plot in Creswell for very long -- if the season goes well, they hope move north this fall to what they anticipate will be their largest market, Portland.
"And this is… this is a huge year for us. We are beginning farmers and so we're just now starting to make a name for ourselves."
Boondockers will also be creating a reputation for the ancona duck. For many rare heritage breeds of livestock, survival means finding farmers like these all over the country who are dedicated not only to the bottom line, but to the preservation of biodiversity and the agricultural heritage of the United States.
For KLCC News, I'm Jes Burns in Creswell.
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