Mention the word “duck” at any industry gathering these days and chances are someone will bring up “Duck Dynasty.” This popular A&E reality television program chronicles the lives and business of the colorful Robertson family of West Monroe, La., who became wealthy making products for duck hunters. But when it comes to North American duck products, Leesburg, Ind.-based Maple Leaf Farms is far more appropriate to hold this distinctive title.
“We’re the first Duck Dynasty! We have been in business a lot longer than they have,” jokes John Tucker, co-president of Maple Leaf Farms. John manages sales and marketing, while his co-president brother, Scott, heads up operations. Named co-presidents in 2001, both are sons of chairman and CEO Terry Tucker – son-in-law of the late Donald Wentzel who founded the company in 1958.
Maple Leaf Farms is a vertically-integrated, global duck-breeding and duck-meat products powerhouse. It is a leading North American processor of quality fresh and value-added Pekin duck meat products, plus it processes chicken products for domestic and global markets. It is also the leading global breeder of Pekin duck. And MLF markets innovative, natural, animal-health products and services through its Biotech division and the company’s integrated duck-production system, INDUX. INDUX offers nutrition, diagnostics, research, management and other services to international duck breeding stock customers. MLF’s subsidiary, Eurasia Feather Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., markets upscale down and feather products to manufacturers, interior designers and institutions globally.
High-end duck products
Maple Leaf Farms’ high-quality duck-meat products range from traditional whole-body duck to value‐added delicacies, such as fully cooked roast half duck, duck sausage and duck appetizers. Duck product sales represent approximately 90 percent of the company’s business while chicken product sales account for 10 percent of total revenue. Sales to foodservice represent approximately 65 percent of company sales, retail grocery sales account for approximately 20 percent of total revenue, export sales to more than 30 countries account for 15 percent of annual sales revenues, while sales of breeding stock and support services through INDUX continue growing.
The North American duck-meat market is estimated at around $200 million. Although MLF doesn’t publicize its sales, it is No. 1 in this market – and its sales continue growing.
Innovative products help drive sales. “In the past, we primarily sold whole-body ducks plus a few parts,” John Tucker says. “In the past seven years, we spent an inordinate amount of time and resources developing new, value-added products. People thought we could drive consumption by increasing the head of duck we sell. Now, it’s how many portions of duck can we sell? If we can get someone to try duck just once, we think that will drive consumption [through repeat sales]. I see growth happening through developing innovative products like duck bacon, duck potstickers and pulled duck meat.”
MLF duck products include whole duck, ready-to-cook; fully cooked roast half duck; ready-to-cook and fully cooked duck breast; ready-to-cook and fully cooked duck legs; duck appetizers; and other duck products, including ground duck sausage, ground duck meat, rendered duck fat and duck bacon, which joined its foodservice product selection in September 2012. Value-added chicken products include Milford Valley brand stuffed chicken entrées, stuffed minis, stuffed sticks, patties, strips and nuggets.
Duck bacon, developed by Kent Thrasher, MLF’s director of R&D who once worked for Oscar Mayer’s bacon division, is very successful. The product is cured, naturally Applewood smoked and cooks in minutes. Made exclusively with boneless breast meat, duck bacon has 57 percent less fat than traditional pork bacon. Thrasher and his staff also developed the company’s new, successful ground-duck meat and pulled-duck meat offerings.
“Unlike some other poultry bacons, our duck bacon doesn’t compromise on taste or texture,” says Cindy Turk, director of marketing, duck division. “It’s packed with flavor and has a great bite that’s perfect for Benedicts, burgers, BLT’s and even brittle.” Product is packed in 1-lb. vacuum packages, five packages per case.
MLF duck products sold domestically to foodservice go mainly to white table cloth restaurants and some upper-midscale venues. Retail duck products, primarily whole-body birds plus some value-added products such as roast half duck breast, are sold at most major supermarket chains in the US. The company’s products are also sold by catalog and through the website (www.mapleleaffarms.com).
US per capita consumption of duck fluctuates between .4 lbs. -.5 lbs. annually and it is climbing, John Tucker says.
Fueling the company’s progress are two innovative duck-processing plants in Milford, Ind. MLF also operates three domestic hatcheries, one breeder farm and one feed mill. Products made at the Milford complex are distributed to each US state and exported to 35 countries. Mexico and Canada are its biggest export customers. Export products under the Maple Leaf brand that dominate are whole body-duck, duck breasts and duck legs.
MLF’s primary plant totals approximately 110,000 sq. ft. It also harvests and preps feathers, which are sold to Eurasia and third-party customers; feathers represent a large revenue stream. The Serenade division plant across the street totals 115,000 sq. ft. and processes further value-added duck and chicken products. The distribution center attached to the Serenade plant totals approximately 40,000 sq. ft. More than 400 employees work in production and distribution.
The distribution center has more than 31,000 sq. ft. of frozen storage space, plus refrigerated docks and office space, says Jason Glenn, corporate distribution and sustainability manager. The center includes a -40°F blast freezing cell, -10°F frozen storage, 35°F refrigerated shipping docks, plus fresh storage and office space for operational and logistical planning.
The primary plant processes about 10 million ducks annually. Approximately 275 SKUs of products for foodservice, retail and industrial markets are offered. Two production shifts plus a sanitation shift run at each plant, says co-president Scott Tucker. “We’re typically running five days a week,” he adds. “We work with about 140 contract duck growers within a 100-mile radius of our Milford complex.”
State-of the art processing technology includes sizing/sorting systems for whole-body ducks and boneless duck breasts; high-speed, automated cutup equipment for primal duck cuts; and specialized equipment for skinning. “We’re also scoring the skins of some products with water-jet technology and we do a good job with our automated labeling, tracing and recall systems,” he adds.
MLF’s primary plant runs two lines. After the kill operation and feather removal, carcasses move through evisceration, chilling, grading and sizing, and product is diverted to primary cutup or whole-body packaging. The primary processing plant’s automated, high-speed, cut-up line is unique to duck processing and processes 80 birds per minute. Lee Allen, plant manager, Indiana division, explains carcasses are hung by both legs, the equipment cuts off the tail and neck, skins the neck, removes the wings, cuts the front half, comes down on the side and separates the back from the leg. The back is sold for pet food, while the legs get packed out and sold as finished product.
A major, multi-stream byproducts/offal facility was added at the back of the primary plant two years ago. “We now sell every part of the duck except the esophagus,” Allen says. “We discovered ways to chill duck parts, treat them and greatly increase our revenue. Most byproducts are sold as animal feed, for premium pet food or as value-added offal. To quote our CEO, Terry Tucker, “We use everything but the quack.”
Production flexibility and agility helps fuel success, says Rick Prins, plant manager, Serenade division. “We do flavored, boneless duck breasts and legs. All retail packaging for our duck items comes to this facility,” he adds.
Serenade’s plant operates a roast half-duck operation; a pack-off area that handles a variety of further value-added foodservice and retail products; and a value-added chicken operation. Six unique rotisserie-style rack ovens run around the clock five days a week, Prins says, “to provide a high-temp cook and the skin development, color and meat quality we demand.”
Packaging includes shrink bags; horizontal rollstock form-and-fill; vacuum barrier packaging for raw and RTE products; inline skin pack primarily for retail; some cook-in film; retail sleeves and cartons; plus a lot of bulk and tote packaging for restaurants. But one new packaging format most excites company execs. In July, MLF launched a nationwide rollout in transitioning to vacuum-skin packaging (VSP) for all retail raw duck-breast and duck-leg products following a three-year R&D effort. Increasing consumer interest in at-home duck preparation led to this transition.
The new VSP features a clear view of the entire product; an easy-peel corner; cooking instructions under the flip-up label; and packaging materials were reduced by 17 percent. It also creates a more-appealing presence on the shelf and can be displayed upright in customized trays or on a pegboard.
One innovative vacuum-packaging machine used at the Serenade plant runs flexible packs as a standard rollstock machine or in the VSP format.
MLF is the only US duck company that is Global Food Safety Initiative [GSFI] certified, Turk boasts. In February 2012, the company announced it achieved certification as a GFSI institution, which is accomplished through a comprehensive benchmarking process in food-safety management systems and designed to ensure delivery of safe food to consumers worldwide. MLF operations underwent an audit by British Retail Consortium (BRC) technical standards that specify requirements to be met by an organization to enable the production, packaging, storage and distribution of safe food and consumer products.
The MLF Serenade plant also incorporates an intensive microbial sampling program. “Nothing leaves until all of our micro tests are cleared,” Prins adds. “The Serenade plant also utilizes a plant-wide color-coded allergen program addressing all eight major allergens.”
MLF is proactive regarding sustainability. “Our sustainability efforts are ethically grounded; we can scientifically verify what we’re doing; and they are economically viable,” Scott Tucker says.
Last year, the Milford complex experienced an 11 percent reduction in water usage while electrical usage was reduced by 7 percent. “Through working with Waste Management, they estimate we’ve eliminated 39,000 cubic yards of landfill and reduced upstream supply side impacts by conserving as many as 58,000 trees,” he adds. “Sustainability is also about being a good neighbor in the communities we operate in.”
The distribution center features energy-efficient lighting activated by motion sensors, reducing heat load and energy usage. The center also utilizes an under-floor, wire-guidance system in the freezer to guide and assist in operating freezer trucks.
New world headquarters
Maple Leaf Farms celebrated the opening of its new world headquarters building in nearby Leesburg, Ind. on Oct. 27, 2011. The building was dedicated in honor of company founder Donald Wentzel and CEO Terry Tucker, who has served the fourth-generation family‐owned business for more than 50 years.
MLF purchased the former Leesburg Elementary School from Warsaw Community Schools in April 2011 and invested more than $4 million to renovate it. Fort Wayne‐based Weigand Construction and Design Collaborative renovated the building. The new headquarters has offices for more than 80 employees, which streamlines communications. It also houses a state‐of‐the‐art demonstration kitchen complete with multi-media technology where celebrated chefs conduct classes and presentations, a company store that sells MLF products, plus a gym that serves as a large all-purpose room. “As a boy, my father played basketball in that gym,” John Tucker says.
After the dedication, guests toured the building, enjoyed samples of the company’s poultry products and participated in cooking demonstrations and a special book signing with Master Chef Martin Yan, host of the Yan Can Cook cooking show and author of more than 30 award‐winning cookbooks.
Scott Tucker was the force behind building the new headquarters facility. “He did a wonderful job,” John says. “[Scott’s and my] personalities are very different. My father recognized our different strengths. We work together well, which helps drive this business.”
Looking globally, MLF’s New Business Ventures deals with its breeding stock business and the company’s abilities to produce that market and process duck. The company’s INDUX System is an integrated duck production system offering nutrition, diagnostics, research, management and other services, for international duck-breeding stock customers. To support the growth of this system, MLF entered into a joint venture with Shandong Yonghui Foods in the Shandong Province of China in 2010, which is going well.
“New Business Ventures is all about INDUX and comprised of all things we do well in duck,” John Tucker says. “It starts with our duck genetics to building design to feed formulations to animal husbandry techniques to packaging and marketing.” New Business Ventures vice president Tony Flesch and John Tucker are the driving forces behind INDUX.
China holds great growth potential for MLF since its population consumes a massive amount of duck per day. “There are 32 million ducks raised per year in the US. In China, there are 3.5 billion ducks raised per year,” John Tucker says. “My vision for China is eventually we will partner with a processor there that will work with us in producing an eco-friendly, food-safe duck in China.”
“As a primary breeder, one of our key growth areas is taking our genetics and merchandising that worldwide and taking the process in quality, food-safety aspects of how we operate and finding partners internationally who value the Western-style of processing and partnering with them to bring that higher-quality duck product to other markets,” Scott Tucker adds.
When asked if there are plans to expand the Milford plants or build a new plant, Scott answers, “We would first look to further utilize the Milford facilities adding advanced automation to process higher numbers. Our growth is purposely measured due to inflation and other cost factors. We’ll also try to recoup the costs we experienced in this crazy poultry market during the last five years.”