The Duck Idol
The duck that rests in the field of Flanders lies like an idol of a dead civilization.
Wire-frame and concrete. It is both building and statue, like a larger version of a child’s art project made from paper mache. 20 feet high, its flanks are white and coarsely textured. Its beak is little more than an orange cone. It’s eyes peer out from the sides of its head both west and east through old Model T brake light eyes that at night glow with menace on the dark country road.
That simple effigy represents an age when the duck farm ruled Long Island, when duck farms dotted the landscape on a map of the east end like chicken pox. For the farmers who worked the land and tended the flocks, the concept that they could all go was unimaginable. They survived the great depression, they survived the 1938 hurricane and other storms after that, but they wouldn’t survive Long Island’s population boom. The nitrogen in Long Island lakes and waterways had become so bad they risked the entire ecosystem. The passive Big Duck watched as suburbs were pulled across the length of Long Island like an immense sheet. Land that had been dug for new duck pens would instead be paved and seeded with concrete. All except for one, one last duck farm from when there had once been close to a hundred. And one last duck idol for the wistful to flock to.
On the field of Flanders that flock are a group that calls themselves the Friends of the Big Duck. The members, such as the often brusque president of the group, Fran Cobb, continue to pride themselves on the history of the community as they surround the huge, concrete duck in adulation.
One year ago Lisa Debrowski, the Sergeant-At-Arms for the Friends of the Big Duck, leaned with one arm on a table in the Flanders community center and remembered her family. She remembered their old car, their old house. Mostly she remembered them, her parents and grandparents. How hard they worked, their love of animals, their love of the shore and the soil.
“That’s one of those things they passed onto me, the love of the land.”
She has owned a few farm animals that included sheep, rabbits, chickens, a horse and, of course, ducks. She had those ducks as a memory. She was born too late to be part of the duck farming business, but the way she saw it farms are part of her heritage.
Lisa’s identity was steeped in that heritage. It goes back to when her family built their home in Calverton on the side of the Peconic river that was the color of tea, so clean you could see the sandy bottom. It’s something that Lisa’s uncle John Debrowski remembered so clearly.
“I can remember walking down to the duck pens, they were a big breed of ducks, I would go down there and walk with them,” Uncle John said. “They asked ‘where is john,’ and they’d say ‘oh, he’s out with the ducks.’”
Uncle John and his brother Conrad, Lisa’s father, would take boats out onto the water, rowing lazily among the ducks in the bright sunshine to work on the surrounding fences. Whenever their father needed to call them in he would whistle, a shrieking high-pitched signal that one could hear anywhere on the farm. The ducks would hear it, and parade back to the pens, quacking, knowing it was feeding time. Uncle John would walk back to his house along with the streaming ducks. His family supported themselves off their own work and off their own land.
Traditional farming would be nothing without family, even where the smells of manure and sweat clung to the earth and walls. One year ago at the beginning of a cold, wet spring the ducks of Crescent Duck farm huddled in their barns and houses behind wet wood on dry straw and grating, there in the temperature-controlled darkness on a rainy day.
When walking along the rock and dirt paths around his 145 acre farm or when sitting at his office, Douglas Corwin, the owner of the Crescent Duck Farm, cut the figure of a farmer. Even in the office he sat at the desk with a dirty blue overshirt and mud-caked, high blue boots. Right outside the sounds of duck processing machinery perforated the air and swallowed the sounds of rain outside the window.
“We do our own breeding, our own hatching, our own growing, our own harvesting, our own marketing. We cover everything from top to bottom. I mean, I’m fifty-seven, this has been my life,” Corwin said and pushed his glasses back up on his face. “I got here twenty after four this morning. I’ll probably leave around seven.”
From the entrance, it’s hard to grasp how truly large the property is. It is a hive of barns and dirt paths running through them. The border fence on the north side looks out to a spread of houses where several of the Corwin family lives. Douglas’ house sits there, but his father’s home lies near as well as his cousin’s and son’s. Generations of his family are buried in a graveyard across the road from the farm, and there are so many of his family buried there he doesn’t even know how many years back they go.
Douglas stared out at the row of houses, how they surround the property. “It’s a challenge sometimes having family around,” he said with a rueful smile. The farm runs off the families work, and several of his kids and their families will remain to work on the farm. The work never ends.
Douglas believed his farm will not be the last to go – his children would see it continue – but will most likely to remain the last duck farm on Long Island.
“I have a beast that needs to be fed,” he said as his lips curled with the hint of sarcasm. “It’s a capital-intensive industry. You’d never be able to start it again on Long Island. Not successfully.”
Duck Farming used to be seasonal, running from April to November. That changed around 1966, and duck farming has become a year-round business.
The hustle was exhausting, and one farmer after another sold their land to developers. Those who didn’t sell gave it up because of new environmental regulations. The rain that cold spring day could wash the duck waste into the surrounding waterways, but the Corwins had invested in large waste treatment facilities based around two huge cylinders that removed waste and nitrogen from the water. Despite their focus on duck sales, on the constant management of slaughter, evisceration, packaging and then distribution, it was those cylinders and the blinking machinery that saved the farm.
Every day the Corwin’s farm continues to process close to 4000 ducks. An endless stream, and a far cry from from when ducks were seen on the back of flatbed trucks with their feathers fluttering to the ground as the cars took them to processing down thin country roads.
Those simple times are gone. Everything has become internalized and mechanized. The ducks lives begin with a chicks being dropped into crates by the handful and they end along a rolling track with ‘M’ shaped clamps meant to hold their necks while a sharp blade passes through them.
In Lisa’s mind, farming went beyond the product, beyond the slaughter and the business. She had the image of a farm as it exists in America’s collective memory, of the animal, alive, on the property that she owns and puts her own work and sweat into. That image was a part of her as much as her memory was. The Big Duck was neither living nor dead. It was more of an ideal, and while nobody could be said to worship it, the idol was given the type of reverence and love only reserved for nostalgia.
Inside a barn on the Big Duck property, which Lisa described as the Bruder Barn, or “the duck barn,” a few artifacts remained of fargone duck farming days. There was a wood and a metal feeding pen, a rusted steel cauldron that was once used for defeathering and even a long half pipe with vent-like holes cut into the top large enough for a ducks head to fit through. Lisa and Fran walked around it at a small distance, as if the rusted thing were cursed. They laughed with an awkward air.
“That was what they used for… when they…” Lisa hesitated.
Fran finished for her, making the guillotine-like sound with her tongue and her teeth.