HANCOCK COUNTY — A Zionsville duck producer is exploring the possibility of bringing a farm and processing facility to the county that would produce foie gras, a controversial French specialty fare of fattened duck liver.
Erik Risman, principal of Duck du Jour in Zionsville, first introduced French white Muscovy ducks to the central Indiana market from his farm in 2012. Last week, Risman approached the Hancock County Area Plan Commission with a proposal to begin raising and processing ducks in Hancock County. A specific site has not been identified.
Risman’s enterprise would include two or more 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot brooding and rearing barns; a 1,500- to 2,500-square-foot USDA-approved small-poultry processing plant; a gavage barn, where the ducks are penned and fed with a special feeding tube to fatten their livers; and a commercial kitchen.
The farm would also include several acres of free-range pasture land the ducks would roam daily until two weeks before being harvested, when they would be relocated to the gavage barn.
“They would be let out at 6:30 or 7:30 a.m. and then brought back in about 10 p.m. to protect them from predators,” Risman said.
The operation could ultimately produce 25,000 to 35,000 ducks annually; however, Risman said it would be some time before that capacity was reached.
“We operate on a 13-week cycle (from arrival on the farm to harvest), and it would take a long time to reach that number,” he said. “We’re only producing approximately 1,000 ducks per year now (at the Zionsville farm).
Risman said only three foie gras production operations exist in the country – two large farms in upstate New York and another smaller producer in southeastern Minnesota.
Some 80 percent of the delicacy is produced in France; however, the appetite for foie gras there outstrips the available supply, with a hefty amount being imported from Quebec, Risman said.
Locally, Risman’s would be the only Indiana foie gras farm, and he anticipates moving the product through distributors to restaurants both in and out of the state.
The process of fattening the ducks’ livers, however, has met with controversy elsewhere, and Risman is aware that an acceptance of the feeding practice will be key to getting approval to locate here.
To fatten the livers, farmers use a feeding tube to force-feed the animals more than they would generally eat in the wild during the two weeks prior to harvest.
Animal rights activists have objected to the practice, and in July 2012, a California law went into effect prohibiting force-feeding a bird for the purpose of enlarging its liver beyond normal size.
The city of Chicago temporarily banned the practice in 2006 but repealed the measure in 2008. Several other countries have prohibited the practice.
Aside from any ethical questions commissioners might have on the proposal, the location and impact of such a farm is also a consideration, said Mike Dale, plan commission executive director.
“The commission wants me to research the potential impacts the farm might have on surrounding land uses, such as noise, odors, traffic, and get a good understanding of that,” Dale said.
Dale said he plans to contact localities where foie gras producers are currently operating to understand the regulatory issues raised by the operations.
From a county zoning perspective, such an enterprise is currently allowed only in the I-G or industrial-general designation, which is the county’s most permissive and intensive land use designation, Dale said. However, even within that zoning designation, such a use would require a special exception granted by the county board of zoning appeals.
With only a few areas of the county zoned I-G, Dale said an initial consideration for county planners will be whether to modify zoning regulations to allow the use elsewhere in the county, providing more site alternatives in the process.
Public approval along with an acceptable location are both necessary to move forward, Risman said.
“There are two components here: acceptance of the proposal and the availability of real estate,” he said. “We’re going through the same process with several counties surrounding Marion County.”
Should the project obtain approval and a home, it would bring jobs along with it.
“Initially, we would probably hire some part-time help, but the commercial kitchen would employ longer-term employees,” Risman said.
The plan commission is expected to consider the issue further at its July 23 meeting.