Food & Drink » Food: Year of Idaho Food

Morning Owl Farm Has Its Ducks in a Row

Farmer Mary Rohlfing talks ducks eggs and the dirty secret of local food

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In the pre-dawn December darkness, Mary Rohlfing nodded toward a familiar silhouette perched in a tree on the edge of her Boise farm. As if on cue, a great horned owl let loose a burst of hoots as Rohlfing pulled on gloves, preparing for her morning chores.

"Now that it's getting a little bit lighter, you can see the bib on her neck area there. She's kind of the mother owl," Rohlfing said, her words condensing into translucent clouds.

"And you named the farm for her?" I asked.

"Yeah, we did name the farm for her because, in the morning, I'd come out and hear the owls, just like we are this morning, so we named the farm Morning Owl Farm."

That was 10 years ago, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Rohlfing, a tenured professor at Boise State at the time, decided to make a radical career change.

"I was in my garden on about the 30th of September in 2001 and just realized I was at home and where I wanted to be," she said.

Rohlfing wasn't thinking only of changes she needed to make to her life, but of changes she felt the whole nation needed to make in light of that then-fresh tragedy.

"I felt that we needed to, on a grand scale, rethink how we were doing everything. And it seemed to me that one of the big changes we could make to be more self-sufficient and safe in the world was to begin to eat more food that was grown closer to where we lived."

Rohlfing owned 8 acres of land in the Northeast Boise Foothills and decided to give up her professorship and turn her fallow land into a farm. Along with organic produce, she wanted to raise ducks based on advice she'd gleaned from the books of Eliot Coleman, an authority on small-scale organic farming.

As the light behind the Foothills brightened, sliding from slate gray to salmon pink, Rohlfing began her duck-related chores: breaking up ice in several drinking basins, adding fresh water to rubber wading pools, gathering bags of feed, then finally heading toward her duck coop.

"So the girls are in there," she said as she approached a shed containing 200 sleepy ducks. "They're being pretty quiet for us so far, but they'll get noisier."

With the sound of Rohlfing's voice, a few quiet quacks coalesced into a low chorus, then rose quickly to a cacophony of duck calls that soon threatened to blow the coop apart. When Rohlfing finally unlatched the door, flung it open and shouted, "Come on girls," ducks burst out of the coop like a fire hose spewing feathers.

"Some run straight for water," Rohlfing yelled over the flapping, quacking din.

"They're like school kids at recess," I said as the ducks ran into a fenced field, dove into pools and guzzled water, backlit now by a cresting, yoke-colored sun.

"It's part of the reason I love what I do," said Rohlfing. "I like the routine of it all. I like the fact that you're working with something that's alive ... that's a mutual dependency. I didn't know this when I started but I think it's really hard to imagine farming without having livestock or poultry as part of the system. It's sort of the way it's suppose to be."

Endless studies have found that diversified farms--as opposed to vegetable monocultures or factory feedlots--are healthier farms. According to Rohlfing, her ducks were an integral part of clearing this once-infertile horse pasture of weeds and insects and greatly increasing its fertility with duck dropping-enriched compost.

"Using the ducks as part of our plan has been a real help," Rohlfing said. "And that's why we try not to get too angry when it's 8 degrees out in December and you're trying to get a hose to run water."

Not to mention the 110 to 130 duck eggs she collects every day during winter.

"Speaking of eggs," Rohlfing said as she grabbed a basket and walked into the now-empty coop, "let's collect some."

Rohlfing is known in the Treasure Valley as much for her duck eggs as her organic vegetables. Those eggs, with their large, golden yokes and viscose whites give extra lift to baked goods and a tender texture to omelets. Cafe de Paris in Boise uses them in creme brulees and duck eggs Benedicts.

"They're just a great egg," said owner Mathieu Choux. "I really like the color of the yoke; it's a very deep, orange-colored yolk. I like the flavor; it's richer, more full of flavor [than] a chicken egg--and we really like Mary."

"Once you go quack, you never go back," Rohlfing joked--parroting her business slogan--as she filled her basket to the brim with large, alabaster eggs.

And yet, as sunny as this farmer-duck partnership seemed, Rohlfing said her second career as a diversified, local-food farmer had come with some challenging caveats.

"When I started to raise ducks in 2004, my prices for feed were half of what they are now," she said as she walked from the coop to her egg washing room.

Not only that, but the kind of community-based, small-scale agriculture Rohlfing hoped would help move America forward after Sept. 11 is extremely labor intensive. Over a sink of soapy water, she scrubbed every egg she'd collected before shining a light through each one to check for cracks and other defects.

"I have a friend who calls it 'the dirty secret of local food,'" she said as she scrubbed. "No one can charge what it really costs them to produce, whether it's a carrot or a duck egg."

Without the subsidies and economies of scale enjoyed by industrial agriculturalists, local-food farmers are often trapped between their ideals and the limits of what consumers, even those who value local food, will pay.

"If I really wanted to make a profit on duck eggs--I mean break even on duck eggs--I would have to probably retail these eggs at about $7.50 a dozen," Rohlfing said.

That's $2 more per dozen than she charges.

"I don't think Boise folks are ready to pay that much," she added.

"I think Mary is absolutely right," agreed local-food advocate and small-scale chicken grower Janie Burns.

Burns has sold chicken eggs since 1993 and also offers them below cost.

"The best that I can do is sell my product at what the market will bear to customers who are willing to pay it--and appreciate it," Burns said.

She believes there are environmental and ethical advantages to small-scale agriculture and makes ends meet through a second household income.

To help bridge the gap between her own ideals and economic realities, Rohlfing has tried value-added products like duck egg quiches and beignets. She has sold produce and other products at the Capital City Public Market and at the Dunia Marketplace in Hyde Park. She's currently working on a partnership with parent-teacher associations to sell mini quiches online and donate a portion of the proceeds back to area schools.

Rohlfing said her concerns are less for her own farming future than for the next generation of idealistic young farmers.

"The big question for me is, how do you create a farm that has a succession plan?" she asked. "I've been trying to figure out how I can bring younger farmers in ... and create enterprises that don't just pay my wages and pay for the mortgage on the farm, but can create a job for other farmers. And I have to tell you, I've been working at it for eight years and I haven't found the magic key."

As Rohlfing cleaned the last of her duck eggs, she said Morning Owl Farm wasn't going away, but it would likely make changes.

"Dan [Meyer], who is my young farmer in training, and I had a really serious talk about the ducks yesterday," Rohlfing said with a sigh. "And we decided if we don't make that quiche business work, we're going to take ducks out of our production system, except on the very lowest level. It's just an enterprise that's losing money right now. ... So, as much as I love the ducks and as heartbroken as I would be to take them out of the system, we will do that if we can't make this happen."