We should all live a life as carefree as that of the Khaki Campbell ducks at the western Wisconsin farm of Khaiti and Andrew French.
The 200-plus birds soak up the sunshine and fresh air as they waddle through a series of fenced paddocks, roaming under shade trees and through mud-streaked patches of clover, moving in packs and squawking up a storm on this picturesque and fascinating farm. The scene is a marked contrast to a nearby turkey operation, a factory farm where birds pass the whole of their brief lives crammed wing-to-wing in a space the size of a hockey rink, their only glimpse of the outside world through long horizontal openings.
It's a depressing sight, and it raises a question: How good can that poultry taste? The moral to this story: Healthy, happy ducks become exceptionally good at doing what they do, and that's lay eggs.
"Ethics are so important when you're dealing with animals," said Khaiti. "I know this sounds cheesy, but we don't think of our animals as profit centers. Our animals are so happy here. If you treat animals the way you would want to be treated, you will get spectacular results."
The farm started when Khaiti, who spent more than a decade working in Twin Cities natural foods co-ops, went on the hunt for chickens. She answered a Craigslist ad and encountered a few stray ducks. "I discovered that I liked duck eggs better," she said. "Chicken eggs are wimpy."
One small step forward led to another, and soon enough she found herself doing what she'd always wanted -- farming. Hence the name, L.T.D. Farm, or Living the Dream. Andrew, another longtime co-op vet, signed on two years ago, and the couple exchanged wedding vows -- on the farm, where else? -- in July.
The ducks -- a breed which, like turkeys, are able to get only a few feet off the ground, flightwise -- dine very well, feasting on a diet of organic grains supplemented by clover, sorrel, goldenrod and other cover crops cultivated inside the paddocks. Bugs are a highly prized treat, along with vegetable scraps from the kitchen. "They love kale, and they'll gnaw down a winter squash with their beaks," said Khaiti with a laugh. "And it adds to the nutritional content of the eggs."
Although Andrew teases that his wife chose the Khaki Campbell breed because of its similarity to her name, the real reason is because of their prolific egg-laying capabilities. During prime egg-laying season, which will peter out in November ("it's timed to the amount of light the ducks receive; it's similar to plants," said Andrew), the flock of sleek brown ducks, some of them up to five years old, will produce about 700 to 900 eggs per week, usually gathered daily by 9 a.m.
In the looks department, duck eggs boast a pearly, luminescent quality that chicken eggs lack -- and the shells are harder, a resilience that leads to a longer shelf life. The flavor isn't necessarily different from that of their chicken counterparts, but there's a noticeable change in texture. Because duck eggs boast higher fat and protein figures than chicken eggs, they work wonders in baking and in custards; scramble them, and the descriptive word that applies best is creamy.
The price difference between chicken eggs is steep -- roughly twice as much as for similarly organic, free-range chicken eggs -- but worth it. Play around with them a bit in the kitchen, and you'll ask yourself: Why haven't I been eating duck eggs? And why aren't more farmers producing them? The last question is one that the Frenches ask, too. "There are not many duck experts out there, so we're writing our own book," said Andrew.
The power of positive thinking
The 39-acre farm bustles with smaller numbers of chickens, turkeys, goats and pigs, but the primary emphasis is on ducks, along with vegetables and a grove of apricot, apple and cherry trees. Inside the house, the kitchen counters are lined with jars of preserved vegetables and bars of goat's milk soap, and the living room floor is covered with gigantic jars of slowly fermenting apple cider. Nothing goes to waste, most especially the ducks' manure. It's a highly effective fertilizer, and the couple put it to good use on the vegetable gardens they cultivate for their crop-share program.
"I've never seen tomatoes so huge," said Andrew. "We call them 'duck poop tomatoes,'" said Khaiti with a laugh.
Along with hosting on-farm workshops, the couple keep in touch with their burgeoning clientele through a well-stoked Facebook presence and a trio of blogs. "We want to be transparent, we want to share the reality of what we're doing," said Khaiti. "We have so much fun that we want to share it. You have to enjoy what you do. Being enthusiastic is insanely contagious."
For those romanticizing the life of young farmers, don't. Raising both animals and vegetables on a small-scale basis won't put anyone in an upper-income tax bracket, and the work is dirty, time-consuming and back-breaking. Each is a full-time discipline on its own, and this labor-intensive enterprise is a hands-on operation, literally; the sole farm implement is a small used tractor, a kernel of knowledge that makes the Frenches' commitment to their dream that much more inspiring.
"The most effective machines are our bodies," said Andrew. "We keep saying that we're going to print up T-shirts that read, 'Fueled by duck eggs. And coffee.'"
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757