Greg and Jodi Clarke never imagined themselves as duck farmers. It just kind of happened.

“We moved back to Australia from London to start a family,” says Greg. “I’d bought some land down at Port Campbell years earlier, but living on the coast meant Jodi had to commute for over an hour to get to where she worked as a real estate agent. We thought about ways we could use our land to start a business so that Jodi could work but still stay at home with our two girls.

“I’d been writing articles for The Weekly Times on small farmers, so we had been slowly drawn into the good-food movement. We kicked around a million ideas: dairy cows, growing saffron – but then Jodi plucked ducks from somewhere.”

They bought their first 30 ducklings in 2009. They had decided to try farming Aylesbury ducks; attracted by their rare-breed status; light, gamey flavor; and sweeter fat.

Greg had written a story on Andrew McConnell (Cumulus Inc., Cutler & Co, Marion, Supernormal etc.) for the Herald Sun. He approached him again to tell him about his ducks.

“McConnell thought it was a great idea,” says Greg. “He offered to buy every duck we produced.”

And so he did. During their first three years, Great Ocean Ducks produced around 50 Aylesbury ducks a fortnight – all of which went to McConnell. But although they were selling all their ducks, life for Greg and Jodi was far from easy.

Breeding the Aylesbury ducks was proving more difficult than expected, and there was no one they could turn to for help. They were often losing entire batches of eggs during the incubation process.

“Everything we learned was by trial and error. There was no template, there was no one to go to. We set fire to a lot of money making mistakes, and we shed a lot of tears,” says Greg. “We just had to wing it.”

Things got a little better after they met a farmer who offered to sell them some Pekin ducks (not to be confused with the Chinese dish, Peking duck). Pekins are a heartier, commercial crossbreed, bred for their meat. They continued to breed the Aylesbury ducks, but, with the added Pekins, were able to sell to more restaurants.

Greg and Jodi’s ducks are in high demand from chefs, butchers and restaurateurs for a few reasons. The ducks are paddock-reared: “real” free-range, which means they spend their days roaming around the property, rather than shut up in cages.

“It seems almost absurd to us that we felt the need to say paddock-reared, but free-range is an almost meaningless term now because there are no rules around it,” says Greg.

The ducks are fed an unusual diet. Alongside their specially made grain, the ducks eat fruit: strawberries in the warmer months, and apples and pears in the colder months (the latter are pureed because the ducks don’t have teeth). Greg and Jodi have recently planted plums and figs, too. Greg doesn’t think they eat enough fruit to influence the flavour of the meat directly, but it sure makes them happy: “They absolutely love it! And a happy animal tastes better,” he says.

Greg and Jodi produce around 1200 ducks, which they sell to some of Melbourne and Victoria’s top restaurants, including Brae, The European and McConnell’s restaurants. There are many more who would like to list Great Ocean Ducks (cheekily referred to by the chefs as GOD) on their menus, but Greg and Jodi don’t want to increase production. They don’t believe they can without sacrificing quality.

So to diversify their business, they recently published a book. Just Duck: The Farm, The Chefs, The Cookbook is a collection of duck recipes donated by the chefs who buy Great Ocean Ducks. There are also profiles on the chefs, and food and farm stories, all tied together with beautiful imagery. “It’s not meant to be gratuitous; it’s meant to make people appreciate more what actually ends up on the plate,” says Greg. “The whole process.”

The recipes range from the (slightly more) basic, such as the Royal Mail’s duck egg sponge cake, to complex. Ian Curley’s (The European) recipe for Duck à l’Orange opens with the line “This recipe requires three whole ducks, which you’ll need to break down … ”. It consists of seven elements, including duck cannoli, duck-neck sausage and duck pâté. At the back, there is a helpful collection of handy duck recipes including duck stock, consommé and instructions on how to render duck fat.

The whole process hasn’t been easy for the Clarkes. Greg jokes they were considering dedicating the book to a divorce lawyer with a note saying, “You almost got us!” But it has been rewarding, too. They‘ve learned a lot, and they spend plenty of time together as a family, eating at the restaurants they supply to. And they have an appreciation for farming that they wouldn’t otherwise have gained.

“Even if our business falls over tomorrow, the great thing about what we’ve experienced, apart from opening up this whole new world, is [realising] just how bloody hard farmers work. And how still undervalued [they] are. It’s incredible what they have to do to feed us. So if we’re not farming next week, we’ve still gained that valuable experience.”

greatoceanducks.com

Restaurants
Merricote, Northcote
Royal Mail, Dunkeld
The European, Melbourne
Gladioli, Inverleigh
Zigfrids, Geelong
Timboon Railway Shed Distillery, Timboon
La Bimba, Apollo Bay
O'Connell's, South Melbourne
Brae, Birregurra
Coppersmith Hotel, South Melbourne
Hotel Warrnambool, Warrnambool
The Commoner, Fitzroy
Ten Minutes by Tractor, Mornington Peninsula
Chiara, Melbourne
The Press Club, Melbourne
Craig's Royal Hotel, Ballarat

Butchers and Provedores
Cannings Free Range Butchers, Hawthorn
The Chicken Pantry, Queen Victoria Market
Obelix & Co., North Fitzroy
Meatsmith, Collingwood