Indian Runner ducklings stand adorably upright, aligning their heads, wings and webbed feet in a way that would make them the stars of any yoga class. Fifty of them race in a tight pack around the barn of Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto, co-owners of Feisty Acres in Southold. Morawiec and Pinto will soon turn these sturdy and comical heritage egg layers out to pasture to do what ducks have been doing on Long Island since the late 19th century: eating and making food.
Morawiec and Pinto are the new face of East End poultry farming. They raise their ducks, quail, partridge and chickens on pasture, contributing to the sustainable future of a business that has been as central to the culture and economy of Long Island as commercial fishing. But, like fishing, the poultry industry has seen its share of environmental and regulatory challenges and faced periods of boom and bust.
In 1899, Long Island was the growing center of duck farming in the United States, and Eastport was its capital. An advertisement placed in an industry journal that year by duck breeders R.B. and O.H. Dayton in the nearby hamlet of Remsenburg read: “Indian Runner Ducks, wonderfully prolific. Are rapid and easy growers. Handsome in appearance.”
The duck industry on Long Island had taken off after James Palmer, Esq., of Stonington, Connecticut, imported a flock of Chinese ducks known as Pekin in 1872. Soon local farmers started buying breeding stock from him, and the East End of Long Island, blessed with plenty of water for ducks to paddle around in and plenty of fish to feed them, became a paradise for poultry. When customers began to notice a fishy taste in the Long Island eggs and duck meat, growers responded by changing up the feed and charging more for the premium product long before “value-added” became a common marketing term.
In the early part of the 20th century, Hallock’s Atlantic Farm on the Speonk River was the largest duck farm in the world, producing a quarter of a million ducks in one year. Their tag line, “Hallock’s Celery Fed,” was a boast about the flavor and quality that was an important part of their brand until the farm was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane.
By the 1950s, Crescent Duck Farm had become one of the largest duck farms on the East End. This was a time when Long Island provided seven million birds annually, about two-thirds of U.S. duck production overall. Crescent Duck Farm’s owner, 60-year-old Douglas Corwin, comes from a family that first settled in Southold in the 1640s, farming and working mainly as carpenters for a couple of centuries before Corwin’s grandfather decided to raise Pekin ducks in 1908.
The series of federal reforms that culminated in the Clean Water Act began affecting the Long Island poultry business in the late ’50s, and, by 1972, presented significant challenges to the duck industry. Managing the excreta of ducks raised outdoors (ducks generate more waste than most other poultry) became virtually impossible for medium- or small-sized operations. Responding to these changes, the Corwins invested in waste treatment systems to comply with the federal and state regulations, buying up the local feed supplier to ensure their stock of high-quality feed.
“I make a million ducks a year in an industry that makes 80 million,” said Corwin. “I’m a pure niche player in an international business.” He and his sons, Blake and Pierce, both in their 30s, produce duck that is known for its flavor and meatiness. It is a mainstay at high-end restaurants such as the Four Seasons, in Manhattan. “I was at a food show once when David Bouley put his arm around me and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
When the Long Island Duck Farmers Cooperative in Eastport was voted out of existence in 1987, almost two dozen Long Island duck farms closed, some relocating to Pennsylvania and midwestern states. It was two decades before second-career farmer Chris Browder and his wife, Holly, used land and a barn leased from the Peconic Land Trust to begin raising certified organic chickens for meat and eggs. Influenced by the innovative techniques of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm in Virginia, Chris had raised a few chickens for meat while working as a farm apprentice at Garden of Eve in Riverhead, and when his chicken meat was snapped up immediately he had an “aha” moment: “I realized that there was no one doing pastured poultry on Long Island.”
In 2010, the Browders began to raise white and red broilers, birds bred to be superior foragers. In order to increase production from 1,000 birds a year to as many as 5,000, the Browders moved the farm to their own land in Mattituck and purchased a processing unit.
Chris Browder continued to research the East End poultry scene, returning repeatedly to Iacono Farm on Long Lane in East Hampton, where Anthony Iacono, the second generation of a chicken-farming family in operation since 1948, has reduced the distance from farm to table to a matter of yards. The Iaconos raise and process 10,000 chickens a year, employing knife skills that would be the envy of any Lower East Side butcher. In the family’s retail store, Anthony’s daughter Amanda, who works alongside her father, recently pointed out to a customer that it is possible to buy a bird too fresh to cook immediately. She advised the customer to wait 24 hours, since a chicken that was walking around earlier in the day is better to eat once the meat has relaxed.
Inspired by the Iacono family’s processing expertise, last year Chris Browder was able to boost his business, increasing his offerings of packaged legs, breasts and wings to include prepared foods such as stock, quiche and chicken potpie.
Browder’s Birds helped establish a new way forward for the East End poultry business by showing that pastured poultry can be the basis of a viable enterprise. “The stories you hear about the conventional chicken business [tens of thousands of birds raised in a single house] ... well, we need an alternative,” said Browder. “I realize it’s not for everyone because our price point is higher. But it turns out there are lots of people who want to eat chicken, but don’t want to eat that chicken. They want a chicken that is raised well, that is raised humanely.”
Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto met as farm apprentices at Garden of Eve in 2012. Pinto was a farmhand at Fort Hill Farm in Connecticut, a well-respected, diversified operation with a large community-supported agriculture (CSA) system. Afterward, he worked in Alabama with a family of Messianic Jews in a tiny community near the Tennessee border, raising vegetables and livestock. Morawiec had tended 40 chickens and ducks and an acre of vegetables on her father’s farm in Warwick, New York, before serving in the Peace Corps in rural Mali.
For this pair of farmers, the path to love did not run straight. Morawiec and Pinto’s relationship got off to a rocky start when Pinto intervened in a dogfight on the farm and ended up with stitches in his thumb. As Morawiec later recalled, at the time she thought, “Who’s this jerk who got involved in a dogfight?” Then, the farmer at Garden of Eve asked them to compete for speed in picking crops. Pinto threw down the garden glove: “I bet I can pick my greenhouse faster than you can pick your greenhouse.” Morawiec, who had never worked on a commercial farm before, embraced the challenge and lost, but not by much.
Morawiec spent the next few seasons at Browder’s Birds. Every time she worked a farmers market, she had people asking for quail, guinea hens and heritage chickens—that is, hardy traditional breeds that enjoy a life on pasture. “There was obviously a need for this in the market,” she noted. “High-quality game birds and eggs just aren’t available.” By the summer of 2015, Pinto was building enclosures for the 100 pastured quail Morawiec intended to raise. Pinto readily admits that he had his doubts, but by then they were partners. “I have the vision, and Chris can take my vision and build it, give it realness,” Morawiec said.
The quail sold out immediately.
“We started from nothing,” Morawiec continued. “We had to rely on our relationships with other farmers.” In the beginning, they leased two acres from Phil Barbato at Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport, and once they had built their business over three years, the Peconic Land Trust offered them an 8.2- acre property and barn on County Road 48.
A major break for Feisty Acres came when GrowNYC assigned them a spot at the two largest Greenmarkets in the city, the one on Sundays at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, and the one on Wednesdays at Union Square in Manhattan. These heavily attended, year-round markets virtually guarantee a steady supply of customers during the colder months, when selling quail eggs on the East End can leave you lonely. “We are producing 2,000 quail eggs a week for Union Square and Grand Army Plaza, and we are having a problem keeping up with demand,” said Morawiec.
The city Greenmarkets have put Morawiec in touch with some of her most discerning and demanding customers, and they have spread the word about how much more delicious her pastured birds are than game birds raised indoors. “Lena, my very first customer at Union Square, bought guinea hens from us. Originally from Eastern Europe, she told her entire neighborhood and they all started coming. Joy, from Koreatown in Manhattan, started buying quail, and then turkeys, and she told everyone in her apartment building,” said Morawiec.
A handful of restaurants offer Feisty Acres birds, but they have to come visit the farm first, Morawiec added. “If not, they won’t understand why our birds cost what they cost.” One of the chefs who made the trek to Southold was Antoine Westermann, who was so impressed with the operation that his restaurant, Le Coq Rico (“the bistro of beautiful birds”) in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, started buying quail from Feisty Acres.
The day chef Westermann, a connoisseur of poultry, visited the farm was important for Morawiec and Pinto, but restaurants are not their primary customers. “Never have I had someone come up to me and say, ‘I had your bird in a restaurant,’ but I have had hundreds of people come up to me and say ‘I bought your bird at the market and it was absolutely delicious,’ ” said Morawiec. “One restaurant wanted hearts and livers for free, and I said absolutely not, there’s about a dozen Ukrainian women who will have my head. I will not be upsetting my Ukrainian customers; they’re paying $12 a pound for hearts and livers.”
This year, Feisty Acres will drop its USDA certified organic status. Morawiec cited price competition from industrial chicken farms that severely limit outside access for their birds but are still certified organic, while Feisty Acres protocols surpass them in all the ways that count for humanely producing wholesome and sustainable eggs and meat. Meanwhile, organic status would bar Feisty Acres from feeding their birds scraps and gleanings from local conventional farms, driving up costs and hindering their connection to the rest of the agricultural community.
Chris Browder didn’t think too much about the local history of poultry farming until his customers started telling him about it: “A number of times at different farmers markets, people have come up to me and said, my grandfather had a poultry farm out here.” In the decade since he and Holly have been in the business, he’s seen change. “I see what has transpired just since we started, the proliferation of people who are doing chicken in some form—Deep Roots, 8 Hands. Feisty, Catapano. It went from zero to seven or eight just on the North Fork.”
Doug Corwin welcomes the relative newcomers to Long Island poultry farming. “I dare any of them to grow a duck better than I do. They’re never going to have my breeding stock. Still, they have a phenomenal product, and they add to the food culture that we have. I give them a lot of credit. It makes me smile that someone is doing something with the land. We are a Long Island agricultural community and we all want to see the same thing. I’m hoping this new generation will do well and push forward with us.”
BROWDER'S BIRDS: 4050 Soundview Ave., Mattituck; 631-477-6523, browdersbirds.com
Chris and Holly Browder sell pastured chicken at Long Island farm stands and specialty stores, through their CSA and at the farm.
CRESCENT DUCK FARM: 10 Edgar Ave., Aquebogue; 631-722-8000, crescentduck.com
The Corwins have owned and operated a duck farm since 1908, and produce one million proprietary-breed ducks indoors annually. They’re found at some restaurants and grocery and specialty stores.
IACONO FARM: 100 Long Lane, East Hampton; 631-324-1107, iaconofarm.com
The Iacono family’s chicken farm (est. 1948) sells 10,000 freshly killed, indoor-raised chickens annually, year- round. Birds are butchered to order at the retail store on the farm.
MILOSKI'S POULTERY FARM: 4418 Middle Country Rd., Calverton; 631-727-0239, miloskispoultryfarm.com
The Milowskis have raised poultry since 1946. Five thousand pasture-raised turkeys are sold annually, mostly the week before Thanksgiving, out of the family’s retail store. Other offerings include rotisserie ducks and kielbasa. Cash only.
FEISTY ACRES: 45375 County Rd. 48, Southold; feistyacres.com
Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto sell pasture-raised game birds, ducks and chickens at the Greenmarkets at Union Square and Grand Army Plaza in New York City, and through their CSA. They also sell at some of the larger East End markets, including Sag Harbor, during the summer.