With constant access to water and pasteurized feed designed by nutritionists to optimize health without hormones or antibiotics, and freedom to roam in spacious, climate-controlled housing that protects them from outside threats as well as weather, one might call the fowl of Maple Leaf Farms lucky ducks.
However, these conditions have nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with quality measures and the kind of vertical integration that allows Maple Leaf to oversee every step in the process of bringing a duck to market.
This spring, the Leesburg-based company decided increasingly sophisticated consumers might appreciate some of the same things that have impressed food industry insiders for years when it comes to the way it produces and supplies outstanding ducks.
It recently started a #MLFarmToFork campaign focusing on transparency and Maple Leaf’s longstanding commitment to operating responsibly.
The first of several videos it will post on its duck farms and broader operations went up on YouTube a few weeks ago. The web address for it is www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dW6iZGy77w.
Maple Leaf Farms plans to post weekly videos and photos on its social media accounts to illustrate how its farm-to-fork vertical integration process works. It also will provide the new resources to its sales staff, which will share them with customers, Olivia Tucker, its duck marketing manager, said in an email.
“The point of this campaign is simply to share our story. Maple Leaf Farms has been vertically integrated since the 1970s, but this is the first step-by-step walkthrough of our production processes for customers in an easily shareable format,” she said.
“We have always offered tours of our facilities to chefs and direct customers, but we want to give those who can’t visit us in Indiana the same behind-the-scenes look,” Tucker said. “We want to show the world why our ducks are the highest quality on the market.
“Our company has been around for over 60 years, and we have an amazing story of entrepreneurship, family values, and a network of amazing people who have gotten us to where we are today,” she said. “We are finally telling that story to its full extent in a time where transparency with food and farming is more important than it’s ever been.”
The company refers to its animal husbandry program, which is third-party certified, as its Trident Stewardship program. And, it says related facility certifications distinguish it from competing duck producers and suppliers.
In addition to the Trident program, Maple Leaf has a quality assurance staff, which has helped the company adhere to the highest industry processing standards, Tucker said.
“We were the first duck company in the United States to be Global Food Safety Initiative certified and British Retail Consortium certified, and we were also the first duck company to create comprehensive duck care guidelines to ensure that our ducks are as happy and as healthy as can be,” she said.
“We receive top scores from our BRC certification audits, and we are GFSI certified in all of our facilities.”
The company’s feed mill has earned third party certification through the American Feed Industry Association’s Safe Feed/Safe Food program. Tucker said testing for food safety at every step of its operations has helped it maintain the highest quality standards.
“As a fourth-generation family business, family values are engrained in our culture, and we like to work with farmers and employees who value family as well,” she said.
“That’s why we love working with family farms throughout Indiana,” Tucker said. “People who work at Maple Leaf believe in what we do, and they know that treating our ducks right is our top priority.
“Our farmers are very proud of what they do,” she said. “When our communications team visited some of our farms to take photos and videos for the campaign, they received a warm welcome and the farmers were excited to show off their farm and what they do. All farmers consented to have their farms photographed and filmed.”
The Farm to Fork campaign will be highlighting farmers raising ducks for the company on contract as well as Maple Leaf Farms employees with interviews, videos and photos. Many of its contract farmers and employees have been with the company a long time and are excited to share the Maple Leaf story, she said.
The Trident program they work with includes written standards, annual certification and routine farm audits. It focuses on animal care and handling, biosecurity and environmental management.
“During a Trident Stewardship audit, we look at everything from feed and water availability to the air quality in each barn. It is a very detailed process,” Tucker said.
“Our live production technicians also make random visits to each barn to check on the birds, so our farmers know they must keep up our high standards at all times.”
The company developed its first animal well-being guidelines in the mid-1990s, she said. Since then, it has refined and updated them under the direction of an advisory committee comprised of veterinarians and animal scientists.
It added the certification and audit component to the program in 2005. At the time, there was no third-party audit system available for duck production in North America, so the company had to develop those aspects of the program on its own, Tucker said.
“Our audit tools have changed over the years as we learn more from our advisory group, but our company and my family’s commitment to properly caring for animals, ensuring the safety of our products, and being good stewards of the environment has never wavered,” she said.
“These principles, as well as taking great care of our people, are really the core values that drive our business.”
Tucker is the granddaughter of Terry Tucker, the company’s chief executive officer. She said its graphics team, social media specialist and other marketing and communications staff began working on the animated Farm to Fork video in May after her grandfather suggested finding a way to share more about the vertical integration process with the general public.
“It was truly a team effort from everyone within our company,” she said. “As Terry’s granddaughter, I have always looked up to him greatly as a role model, and I am so thankful and happy that I get to help bring his idea to fruition.”
The campaign will run through the rest of this year and will examine different parts of the company’s vertical integration process each week.
In addition to providing an inside look at the farms, it will cover what goes on at the company’s processing facilities and with its Trident Stewardship program.
The company works with about 150 farm families and has a U.S. workforce of close to 850. Many Maple Leaf employees have worked for the company more than 40 years, and the campaign will include features on some of them.
As part of the campaign, the company will host a “#ShareYourDuck” Recipe contest on social media for a prize of $1,000.
Anyone posting a Maple Leaf Farms duck recipe on Facebook or Instagram Nov. 4 – Dec. 13 with #ShareYourDuck on the post will be entered in a drawing to win the prize.
The campaign also will highlight some Tucker family duck recipes to advertise the contest.
“There are a lot of misconceptions today about modern farming and animal husbandry, and we are trying to break down those barriers by being transparent about our entire process,” Tucker said.
“For example, we let our birds roam freely in spacious, climate-controlled barns,” she said. “We do not let them free range outside in order to protect them from both predators and harsh weather. Plus, ducks are much more likely to catch a disease from wild birds when raised outdoors.”
With all the attention food receives in social media, from consumer research and reviews to the millions of pictures showcasing culinary delights on Instagram and Facebook, growing trends toward increased food and food source awareness will not be slowing down anytime soon.
The trends present opportunities for Maple Leaf to let more people know about what it does well while pre-emptively addressing any concerns customers could come up with about the treatment of its ducks and the food safety of its finished products.
“By telling our story through this campaign, we hope to help consumers not only be more aware of duck, but also be more aware of the hard work and detail that goes into our products throughout the entire vertical integration process,” Tucker said.
“The main goal of this campaign is to tell our story and educate consumers on duck production and farming in general,” she said.
“The holiday season is often our busiest time of year, but we designed this campaign to educate and not necessarily to drive sales. Of course, we would love if more people considered duck for their Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.”