Indiana is known as a state that produces an abundance of corn and soybeans, along with plenty of livestock. The northern part of the state is also home to a robust poultry industry.
A total of 1,538,664 ducks were processed in Indiana in 2007, the latest year to be counted in National Agricultural Statistics Service data. Nationwide, 3,984,982 ducks were processed, easily leaving Indiana as the No.1 producer. And while Indiana is not a top chicken-producing state, according to Purdue Extension educator Jeff Burbrink, Elkhart County ranks seventh in the state with 112,000 chickens produced/processed annually.
Milford-based Maple Leaf Farms is a third-generation duck production company, founded in 1958. Scott Tucker, co-president, says the largest portion of its business is in the food-service trade, which includes restaurants, caterers, cruise ships and other institutions. Tucker's grandfather, the founder of the company, grew up in northern Indiana.
"Maple Leaf Farms has continued to call northern Indiana home because we value the business atmosphere here," Tucker said.
He said other key markets for Maple Leaf Farms are grocery stores and specialty meat markets, while its export focus is increasing.
It is also has operations in California, Michigan and Wisconsin. Corn, soy and wheat are the main ingredients in its duck feed, and most of these are sourced from northern Indiana farms, Tucker said.
"Indiana is a good location for producing ducks," said Drew Frey, director of live production at Culver Duck, headquartered in Middlebury. "It is close to feed sources. This is advantageous since feed is our No. 1 cost. The climate is also a good mix. Ducks do not do well in hot weather."
Frey said Culver Duck's main market focus is wholesale opportunities in the United States, Canada and Mexico, although its product may also be found in groceries and restaurants.
One huge advantage of a northern Indiana location, said Frey, is the proximity to major cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit, as well as good transportation infrastructure. "A lot of our product goes to the east and west coast," he said.
About 90 percent of feed fed to ducks at Culver Duck comes from corn and soybeans ― Frey said being so close to feed sources helps keep this cost low.
Miller Poultry, in Orland, focuses on chicken production, and has been processing chickens for 22 years. Miller Poultry president Galen Miller says his company benefits from low grain prices due to its location in the heart of the Corn Belt.
Miller believes the poultry industry is thriving in northern Indiana in part because of the large Amish and Mennonite community, whose members are well versed in agriculture and animal agriculture. Small-scale farmers who supply Miller Poultry can benefit from the additional income, he said, and they fit perfectly with the trend of local food.
Ninety percent of Miller Poultry's market is grocery stores (they sell to Whole Foods Market under a different label, Pine Manor Farms), primarily in southern Michigan, Chicago, Indiana and Ohio.
Burbrink says northern Indiana has the advantage of good local feed supplies and reliable producers, as well as lots of old poultry buildings.
"It's all down to a fine science," he said. "There's lots of experience here in poultry and livestock."
He also said food awareness has become more important to people, and that duck is gaining more exposure.
"There's more awareness of duck among the general public. It's a good, healthy meat."