When Paul Massey was 12, he began helping his father and grandfather—both named Chester—tend to their duck farm that sits just south of the train tracks on Railroad Avenue in Eastport. Mr. Massey worked with his family on a part-time basis throughout his high school years, and came aboard full time in 1978 after graduating from the old Eastport High School, now the Eastport Elementary School, and whose team names were appropriately called The Ducks.
When updated regulations handed down by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation forced an estimated 75 percent of Long Island duck farmers to shut down in the early 1980s, the owners of the Chester Massey and Sons farm opted not only to keep going, but to expand. Mr. Massey’s father and grandfather acquired two additional properties for their then 17-acre business: a six-acre lot that sits on the eastern bank of Seatuck Creek, off River Avenue, in neighboring Southampton Town; and a smaller, two-acre lot that adjoins their original farm on the Brookhaven Town side of Eastport. Paul Massey still lives in the home that sits on the Brookhaven Town side of the farm.
The Massseys continued their operation for the next three decades, as state regulations became even stricter, and the number of duck farms on the island continued to dwindle until only two were remaining: their farm in Eastport and the Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue.
Now, after 40 years of hatching, raising and selling ducks, Mr. Massey is closing the gates to his family’s operation.
“It’s sad,” Mr. Massey said while looking over his flock one recent Friday morning. “I just can’t see a future in this anymore.”
The DEC tightened its standards once again earlier this year and informed Mr. Massey that ducks could only be raised indoors moving forward to reduce the amount of waste entering the environment and to cut down on noise pollution. Duck waste is high in nitrogen and many environmentalists have long argued that duck farming operations can irreparably damage local waterways.
But raising “free-range” ducks outdoors is the only way Mr. Massey—and his father and grandfather before him—have ever done business, he explained, so Mr. Massey said he knew the latest changes would mark the end of the road for his company.
“Adapting would have meant hundreds of thousands of dollars that I’d probably never get back,” he said. “It’s not economically viable.”
A representative of the DEC did not immediately return calls regarding the latest requirements.
Free-range ducks develop a tougher skin, Mr. Massey explained, which makes them uniquely marketable. He said most of his birds are sold to Asian restaurants and markets because their skins are ideal for preparing Peking duck, a dish that relies on a tough-skinned bird to roast and serve with plum sauce.
Mr. Massey, who said he intends to shut down his operation by the end of December, currently raises about 125,000 ducks per year, he said. At the peak of the farm’s operation in the 1970s, he said they were hatching approximately a half a million of the birds annually.
But those numbers have come down as the price of corn—the main ingredient in duck feed—has risen over the years. Mr. Massey explained that at one time it cost about $2 to raise a duck; now, it runs him about $4.50.
“In this type of business, you need a certain number to make your living,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where we’re fighting to survive, and that’s not something I want to do at this stage of my life.”
The 56-year-old said he’s not sure what lies ahead. He lives on the farm with his wife, Jodi. His father, Chester, who is now 88, lives in a home at the top of the hill on the same property. Mr. Massey’s brother, Kurt, also works on the farm.
Mr. Massey explained that he did not pressure his two adult children—Ross, 29, and JamiLee, 27—to take over the family business. His son is a firefighter in Virginia while his daughter is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Aquebogue with her husband and their two children.
As part of his routine, Paul Massey hatches and raises ducklings, then transports them to the Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue for slaughter and market when they reach seven weeks old. He keeps approximately 1,200 ducks on his farm in Eastport at a time for breeding purposes.
Douglas Corwin, owner of Crescent Duck Farm, has been working with Mr. Massey and his family for decades. His facility, which raises about 1.4 million ducks indoors annually, will be the only such farm left on Long Island after Mr. Massey’s closes his doors at the end of the year. Mr. Corwin estimates that he processes about 125,000 ducks annually for Chester Massey and Sons, accounting for approximately 12 percent of his annual output.
But for the two farmers, it’s not only about business. Over the past 30 years, the two have also become good friends.
“It’s a deeply sad thing for me,” Mr. Corwin said during a recent interview. “When you’re in such a unique business, you have a lot of commonalities with other farmers. Now, I don’t have that anymore.”
He explained that as he recognized that state regulations would only become more difficult to navigate, he and his family decided to sink $2.5 million of their own money into a waste treatment plant that was completed about two years ago on the 145-acre property in Aquebogue. He also invested in new hatcheries in the early 2000s after an influenza scare, which cost another $1 million.
Seeing similar farms close across the island put a damper on business, Mr. Corwin said, but it brought the farmers who were still holding on closer together. “As they kept dropping out, we just drew closer and closer,” he said. “It wasn’t competitive in the least because we wanted each other to survive.”
He and Mr. Massey talk on a regular basis about business, but when Mr. Massey told his friend that he had to shut down his family business, Mr. Corwin said he could not help but get emotional. “To hear what he’s going through puts a tear in my eye,” Mr. Corwin said.
One thing Mr. Massey said he’s going to miss is his interactions with the community—particularly, working with students and teachers. He explained that he used to host field trips for students attending the Eastport Elementary School, LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City and others. He even used to give tours and let children watch the ducks being born in the hatchery.
Mr. Massey explained that, after some time, he began to worry about having children running around with the birds, so he stopped hosting the field trips, but continued selling eggs to educators. For the past two decades, he also sold them to schools so that students could watch them hatch.
Lisa Katsch, a first grade teacher at the Wing Elementary School in Islip, has worked with Mr. Massey for the past eight years, ever since administrators contacted him and inquired if the farm could provide duck eggs for science lessons.
“It’s incredible that the kids got to experience the gift of life and, sometimes, survival of the fittest,” Ms. Katsch said. “It’s so sad that they have to close. They’re the nicest people.”
Ms. Katsch said she buys about 60 eggs annually for the school. Each classroom gets four eggs, she explained, and the students are able to observe and listen to the hatching process.
“They hold the eggs up to their ear to hear the pecking,” she said, “and their faces just light up.”
Now, Ms. Katsch said she is unsure if her school will try to purchase eggs from Crescent Duck Farm in the future, or opt to establish a new lesson plan.
The same uncertainty holds true for Mr. Massey, who said he has not decided what his next course of action will be once he closes down the business at the end of the year. They have not yet decided if they will sell their farm which, according to planning department officials in Brookhaven Town, is primarily zoned for duck farming while a portion of the land falls within a residential zone.
“It’s been a fun way to grow up and we’ve had some good years,” Mr. Massey said. “Now, I don’t know what comes next.”