On a sunny winter day, the Ancona ducks at Boondockers Farm in Oregon wandered around their pasture and frolicked in several blue plastic kiddie pools, under the watchful eye of two Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs. The 500 or so ducks spend day and night outside, protected from predators by the dogs, not walls. Cows, turkeys, and Delaware chickens wander in pastures and barns. Vegetables destined for the farmers’ market grow in a nearby garden plot.
This bucolic scene is home to Evan Gregoire and Rachel Kornstein, who have built their farm around the policy of conservation. “All the animals here are critically endangered,” Kornstein says. “Conservation is always the priority.”
Kornstein believes that the only way to save a heritage breed is to ensure that there is a market for the animals’ products. The farm is working to create that market, especially through sales to restaurants. Even though they have many different animals now, it all started with the ducks.
Ducks came into Kornstein and Gregoire’s lives in 2004, when they were living in Eugene, Oregon. Kornstein was going to culinary school, and Gregoire, who had worked in business management, was studying in a master gardener program. A slug infestation in their urban garden prompted Gregoire to fight back–with poultry. After doing extensive research on ducks and duck breeds, they settled on the Ancona, because it’s considered an excellent forager–the ideal predator for garden slugs.
Anconas have other advantages. They are good egg layers, and many lay beautiful blue-green-colored eggs; they are large enough to make good meat birds; and they are described as friendly, which makes them good pets. Anconas seemed like the obvious choice for someone considering raising a few ducks as a hobby, yet most hatcheries don’t carry Ancona ducklings, and the American Livestock Conservancy considers Ancona ducks critically endangered. Boondockers Farm runs one of the few Ancona conservation breeding program in the country.
Back in 2004, the main Ancona breeder in the country was Dave Holderread, who runs a waterfowl preservation program and hatchery around an hour’s drive north of Eugene. Holderread had acquired a mating pair of Ancona ducks in 1980 and started selling the ducklings in 1984. All of the Ancona ducks in the country are descendants of that original pair.
When they decided to add ducks to their garden, Gregoire and Kornstein drove to Holderread’s farm and picked up a pair. But it quickly became clear that the couple wouldn’t be satisfied with two ducks and a garden. They moved to a three-acre property a year later and started selling tomatoes and eggs locally. Their flock grew and they started making frequent trips up to Holderread’s farm to pick up new birds.
Holderread, meanwhile, was starting to think about easing into retirement. In 2010, he asked Kornstein and Gregoire if they would like to take over his entire flock of Ancona ducks and the preservation program. “They were the most interesting thing on our farm, so of course I was interested,” says Kornstein.
Like Ancona ducks, breeds like Narragansett turkeys, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, and Pineywoods cattle would likely be extinct if it weren’t for the actions of a few dedicated preservationist farmers. These breeds are still not far from the brink of extinction, but the overall trend is positive. Narragansett turkey populations have increased substantially in the past 15 years.
Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs were moved from “critically endangered” to “threatened” by the American Livestock Conservancy this year, based on the pigs’ increasing popularity among farmers looking to create diversified farms. And Pineywoods cattle has been preserved primarily by one farmer in South Carolina, who, like Kornstein and Gregoire took over a herd from the previous “breed guardian.”
During the breeding season, the 15 birds from Holderread’s original flock are separated from the rest, and housed in a more protected area with a duck house for the birds to spend the night. They are too old to produce many eggs–Gregoire estimates that they are eight or nine years old–but Gregoire and Kornstein think their genetic value is so high that it’s worth it to feed them all year even if they get only one hatching egg every year.
Once the egg-season starts in early spring, Gregoire and Kornstein haul buckets of hatching eggs from the duck pasture and chicken barn into the large shed that houses their three 1950s-era incubators, each of which holds 2,000 eggs. They send day-old ducklings and chicks around the country, and have sold out every year.
Their breeding program is important, but it’s only half of the preservation program. As Rachel showed me a cooler full of a brown chicken eggs she was infusing with the aroma of black truffles, she repeated, “eat it to save it, eat if to save it.” Gregoire says they ask themselves: “How do you get [heritage breeds] on people’s plates?”
The pair is clearly prepared to make the case that heritage breeds are worth saving for more than sentimental reasons. “The flavor profile is great,” Gregoire says about the poultry they raise. “There is a richness from the tendon and ligament development because they are roaming around. A lot of flavor that you can’t get from a Cornish Cross.”
Here’s a video of Boondockers Farm from the folks at Cooking Up a Story:
Photos by Emily Liedel.