Inspired by the good-food movement, Greg and Jodi Clarke’s pasture-raised Aylesbury and Pekin ducks are recognised by chefs as being some of the nation’s best.
While former city-dwellers Greg and Jodi Clarke originally made the move to Port Campbell to enjoy a more laid-back lifestyle, establishing their own free-range duck farm twelve years ago has been dynamic and challenging to say the least.
“We didn’t know anything about ducks,” Greg admits.
We made every mistake you could make but we have learnt as we have gone along.
“We moved to the country for a slower pace of life, but it didn’t end up that way”.
Readers of The Weekly Times newspaper will be familiar with Greg’s humorous column in FARM magazine each month where he documents their journey of life on the land, key learnings and often pays tribute to farmers for the work they do in keeping the nation fed despite the fickle nature of farming.
After an initial foray into cattle, the duo kick-started their dream with 30 ducklings and, after considerable heartbreak (including many failed attempts at incubation), they were (pre-covid) successfully supplying 1200 Aylesbury and Pekin ducks a year to top restaurants across Victoria and a cohort of high-end butchers. Their export into Hong Kong has been put on hold for the moment.
Aptly named Great Ocean Ducks, their 16-hectare farm overlooks Port Campbell near the Twelve Apostles on Victoria’s rugged coastline and, over the last 15 years, has been the backdrop to the Clarke’s quest to raise the best duck meat in Australia.
“Aylesbury ducks are a rarer breed and known for their light, gamey flavour, and sweeter fat.”
For us, making sure our ducks are happy is our priority and we’ve moulded our farm around that philosophy. That means our ducks free-range during the day and come in at night.
A pair of Maremma sheepdogs constantly guard the flock from attacks, while two trusty kelpies are charged with rounding the ducks up and bringing them in at dusk to feast on a cider-like brew of grain, apples and figs.
Overnight, ducks sleep on hay in semi-open pens before being escorted out by their canine friends in the morning.
For the past 10 years, almost all of Great Ocean’s ducks have been sold direct to restaurants including stand outs such as Magill Estate, Brae and The Royal Mail. It was Greg’s contacts from his original career as a journalist that paved the way for their first ever customer.
Greg called Andrew McConnell (the executive chef and co-owner of Cumulus Inc., an eating house and bar in Melbourne) and told him what we were doing. Andrew’s response was “I’ll take every duck you have.
During their first three years, Great Ocean Ducks produced around 50 Aylesbury ducks a fortnight – all of which went to McConnell. From there we started to build relationships with other chefs and it grew to us supplying around 300 ducks a week”, said Jodi.
In late 2012 they decided to add Pekins to their flock, a heartier, commercial crossbreed, which meant they were able to produce more meat, a savvy decision that allowed them to cater to the increasing demand from Melbourne and Victoria’s top chefs.
The downside to being reliant on the restaurant trade was the effect of lockdowns during COVID-19.
“Every restaurant shut down and we had between 2,000 and 2,500 ducks on the farm so we reached out to butcher’s shop to stock Cryovac ducks that people could cook at home”.
For the first time the couple also began selling ducks direct to the public. Greg says, “social media proved almost a miracle platform.”
We posted on Instagram that anyone who bought four ducks would receive a copy of our duck cookbook for free.
“We also had the humbling support from a clutch of quality butcher shops in Melbourne”.
“COVID has been our biggest hurdle to date, but we are slowly starting to build our numbers back up again. I think it has helped us to become a bit more resilient”.
While duck is more frequently seen on restaurant menus than at home, Jodi encourages everyone to give it a try.
“A lot of people are nervous about cooking duck at home and I often tell them to treat it like red meat. It’s a really fun meat to cook with – try breast medium rare, or put the legs in a clay pot with lots of veggies and stock and let it slowly bubble away for a few hours.”