Getting Your Ducks in a Row: Indiana producer on navigating the quirks of the duck meat industry
Exploring niche markets in agriculture can lead to mixed results, but Maple Leaf Farms has certainly mastered the art of getting their ducks in a row.
In the 1950s, Donald Wentzel, a former trader at the Chicago Board of Trade turned feed mill owner, envisioned a shift for the modest U.S. duck meat industry, an industry whose epicenter at the time lay in Long Island, New York.
Wentzel believed it made more sense to raise ducks on less expensive real estate — and much closer to where the corn and soybeans used in duck feed are grown. Wentzel turned his vision into reality in 1958 when he founded Maple Leaf Farms.
“The first year that they were in operation, they raised probably a couple hundred thousand heads of ducks,” explained Scott Tucker, Maple Leaf Farms Co-President and the grandson of Wentzel, reflecting on the company’s humble beginnings. “Today, we raise around 10 million ducks, distributing them in all 50 states and about 40 different countries around the world.”
Now based in Leesburg, Indiana, Maple Leaf Farms — along with their nearby competitor Culver Duck — has propelled Indiana to become the country’s leader in duck meat production, putting to market a staggering 14.5 million ducks a year (as of 2017), which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the nation’s total domestic supply.
According to Tucker, about 15 percent of the company’s duck meat is exported to other countries with high consumer demand for duck. However, Maple Leaf Farms is not limited to meat alone; the company also sells eggs and duck breeder hens to hatcheries worldwide.
Terry Tucker, Scott’s father, led Maple Leaf Farms as CEO for an impressive 47 years, pioneering product innovation by offering pre-cooked and re-heatable duck products in the 1970s—truly ahead of his time.
Now, looking ahead to the future, Tucker is looking for ways he can also leave a positive mark on his family’s poultry operation as its third generation of leadership — saying, that one of the company’s significant challenges is labor. Despite successfully navigating the labor shortage post-pandemic by working with a company that arranges for international workers, Tucker acknowledges the need for long-term solutions, especially in a county with a mere two-percent unemployment rate.
One of those solutions is increased automation, which he started to implement at Maple Leaf Farms back in 2019 with the installation of some new machinery, with plans to add more in the coming years.
“The way that we’re looking at contending with that,” Tucker explained. “Like a lot of other poultry processors, [we are] looking at automation, looking at ways that we can take our reliance on the workforce that may or may not show up today out of the equation.”
In the ever-evolving landscape of the poultry industry, Maple Leaf Farms continues to adapt, learning how to hit the curve balls that come their way.