When you grow up around ducks, things other people consider odd you take for granted. Like the way week-old ducklings can be unsteady, flip onto their backs and have to be set back on their adorable little webbed feet. Pierce Corwin, a fifth-generation farmer at Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, explained this as he prepared to enter one of the duck houses. “I’ll probably have to flip four or five ducks,” he predicted, readying for his daily rounds. “They grow pretty fast, and they’re in an awkward stage. Once I flip them, they run right off.”
For much of the 20th century, this kind of arcane duck-raising knowledge was common on Long Island, where most of the duck meat in the United States was raised. At the center of the business, working land they’d owned since the 17th century, was the Corwin family. Henry Corwin, Pierce’s great-great-grandfather, got in on a growing industry when he began raising ducks in 1908.
Five generations and counting
Today, Crescent Duck Farm is run by Doug Corwin, with sons, Blake, 37, and Pierce, 35, at his side. Doug still lives in the house where his father, Lloyd Jr., was born. Doug and his siblings, Jeffrey and Cindy, grew up on the farm, as did Doug’s children. These days Blake lives next door and Pierce lives a short distance away on the 140-acre farm property. Rounding out the family team still living on the farm is Maura Daly, Doug’s longtime partner, who works in the business office, and his mother, Paula, who, for her own safety, has not been allowed in the office since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Family dinners on the farm often feature duck, and Doug Corwin has made it his life’s work to breed the most delicious duck possible. “I put drumettes — just the wing joint — in the oven, let them go for a few hours, let them crisp up,” he said. “Or, r to make them even more tender, I’ll cook them slowly in a confit,” he said. “And I love pan-sautéeing the breasts.”
Blake and Pierce also love duck breast, which Pierce prefers to cook like a beefsteak. “I can tell [our] duck from the competitors’ just by looking at it,” Pierce said. “It has a much bigger breast, and a better meat-to-fat ratio.” Over decades, the Corwins’ breeding program has produced meaty ducks with a breast at least an inch -thick and just enough fat in the skin for flavor.
Doug says Blake is mechanically minded, with a penchant for dump trucks and excavators, and recalls seeing him at the wheel of a farm vehicle before he could operate it without a booster seat. “He’s a fixer,” Doug said. “I got a problem and he’s on it, whether it’s to retrieve a truck that’s broken down in Philadelphia or a roof that’s blowing off in a hurricane.” Blake’s three daughters are still young, but already show some of their father’s attraction to the mechanical and vehicular delights of farming, while Blake expands his role by serving on the board of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Some of Pierce’s earliest memories involve playing with baby ducks, but he says he was a latecomer to the business, especially compared to his brother. While Blake completed a technology program at SUNY/Cobleskill that he probably could have taught himself, Pierce went to Cornell, studied business, and didn’t see a place for himself on the farm at first.
He found himself working on the farm during school breaks, and when his father asked for help with the daily routine of walking through the duck buildings, Pierce took the job. He still enjoys it; making sure upwards of 120,000 ducks are properly fed and watered and looking good and that the buildings — some older than he is — are operating well. Pierce also has responsibility for the Department of Environmental Conservation paperwork, a monthly task related to one of the farm’s most critical pieces of infrastructure: the on-site waste treatment plan that keeps the farm ahead of environmental regulations and costs upwards of $1 million a year to operate.
When duck was king
The first Pekin breed ducks were imported by James Palmer of Stonington, Conn., in 1872, and by the turn of the century, the duck-raising action made its way across the Sound to Suffolk County, where brackish creeks and bays with abundant farmland adjacent and no fancy neighbors to complain about the smell, were ideal locations for raising them. The Corwins named their farm for the crescent-shaped creek enjoyed by the farm’s ducks, and old photographs show thousands of identical white ducks on similar farms in Hallockville, Eastport and Riverhead.
Long Island duck farming was so successful that by the 1950s, two-thirds of the ducks raised in the United States came from Long Island, where about 90 farms raised 7.5 million of them annually.
The industry flourished until the early ’70s, when the twin pressures of rising real estate values and environmental regulations made profitably running a large farm that produced a lot of organic waste problematic. When the Long Island Duck Cooperative went out of business in the late ’80s, its 25 remaining members were left without marketing and processing services, and within a year most of those farms shut down as well. The duck meat business migrated to giant farms in the Midwest, where real estate was cheaper and ducks could be raised indoors year-round.
Doug Corwin remembers the tumultuous events of 1987 because Crescent was suddenly one of the few Long Island farms left — a vulnerable and lonely position. But Crescent had two big advantages that others did not.
The first was the fact that Doug’s father, Lloyd, had purchased a local feed manufacturer in 1984, so they were not dependent on an outside supplier for this vital resource and had an income stream from feed they sold to other farms. “It was probably the smartest thing we ever did,” Doug said.
The second advantage was the family’s investment, starting in the 1970s, in a waste treatment facility that allowed them to comply with increasingly strict environmental regulations. Crescent invested heavily to attain a measure of self-sufficiency that allowed it to carry on.
“We are the only duck farm left,” Pierce said. “When I was growing up, there were just five or six — and three when I got out of college. Since then two more are gone. Now it’s just us.”
Today, Crescent’s position in the duck meat business is unique, said Pierce. “The main producers of poultry in this country are mega-corporations that contract farm, whereas we are a small farm that does everything on a single piece of land. That used to be more common but that’s an old way of doing things now.” Crescent is not an organic or pasture-raised farm, and it uses none of the growth-stimulating antibiotics employed by some larger operations. In the year before the pandemic, Crescent accounted for about 4% of the duck produced in the United States, about 1 million birds.
What the future holds
Last February, when most of us were just starting to hear about a viral disease somewhere in China, Doug Corwin was cutting production and preparing for the worst. Crescent avoided the rampant infections that plagued many other meat producers in part by shutting down most operations for three months. By April, with their restaurant business on hold, sales were down to about 10% of normal and never rose above 50% of normal in 2020. He expects sales to worsen before restaurants can regroup and reopen fully. Sales through retail outlets have increased, however, as consumers turned on their ovens and fired up their grills to cook their own duck, but he said it can’t make up for the restaurant business.
If Crescent’s business has been hurt by the pandemic, during the Great Depression it was even worse. In those days, the Corwins survived by supplementing duck farming with plumbing. This time they are taking advantage of the lull to work on their physical plant, including a new hatchery that will be a cleaner operation and have better temperature control.
For people who like to know where their food comes from, Crescent Duck Farm is a rare thing: a farm that produces meat with transparency in their practices and quality in their product. While chefs from all over know Crescent Duck, and thank them for what they do, many Long Islanders don’t realize there is still a fully functioning duck farm in Aquebogue. “Although,” said Pierce, “When the wind blows a certain way, you still know we’re here.”
Doug Corwin and his sons share an enthusiasm for farming that is still strong. Pierce said, “There’s family drama on top of your average work drama but most days it’s really nice. I see my dad every day. I talk to my brother several times a week and I don’t know if that would be the case if we didn’t work together. We are all striving toward the same things; we are all interdependent on each other.”
The Corwins’ work is unlike anyone else’s because their farm is one of a kind. Too small to be a national force and too large to be an artisanal producer, they are still at the center of a century-long history of Long Island duck — the sole survivors, not merely hanging on, but looking forward to a future with a new generation of farming Corwins. “I love what I do,” Doug said. “It’s an interesting life.”