Feeding ducks is tough task for migrants

Producing foie gras leads to lives that are anything but opulent

April 22, 2001|By Steven Greenhouse | Steven Greenhouse,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FERNDALE, N.Y. - Inside several large barns rising out of the muddy fields here, migrant workers feed nearly 30,000 ducks three times a day by inserting tubes down their throats.

After 30 days of intensive feeding, the farm sends the birds to slaughter, producing a prized gastronomic delight from their swollen, succulent livers: foie gras.

In the last decade, the Hudson Valley Foie Gras farm in this Catskills community has had astonishing success. It now produces three-fourths of all American-made foie gras, which means "fatty liver," and visiting chefs from France have given the farm the ultimate compliment, saying its foie gras rivals the French variety.

But while the farm's owners bask in the acclaim of food writers and celebrity chefs, the 80 feeders - all immigrants from Mexico - lead a behind-the-scenes life that is light-years removed from the opulence that foie gras symbolizes.

The workers, who know that animal rights groups often complain about the treatment of the birds, have a big complaint of their own: The farm requires them to work 30 days in a row, and some say they have not had a full day off in years.

"The conditions for the workers are crueler than the conditions for the ducks," said Maura Gonzales Rusas, a feeder. "It's hard work, it's heavy work, and we never seem to get to rest."

Ground zero in debate

As one of the largest agricultural employers in the state, Hudson Valley Foie Gras has become ground zero in a debate over whether the 30,000 farm workers in New York should be given a right that state law guarantees all other workers: a day of rest each week.

Leaders of the New York state Senate and Assembly are considering such day-of-rest legislation, with a vote expected sometime this fall.

On one side are the New York state AFL-CIO and many members of the clergy, who are battling on behalf of the workers, saying that no one should be denied such a basic right. On the other side is the New York State Farm Bureau, the main growers' association, which says such legislation would hurt the agricultural industry.

Hudson Valley's owners assert that if their workers could take a day off, the feeding process would be disrupted and the ducks and their livers would not grow as fast or be as tasty.

"Our biggest problem is literally the ducks get used to one feeder and the quality of the results will be greatly damaged if someone else comes in one day a week to do the feedings," said Michael Ginor, an owner of Hudson Valley, adding that the farm tries to raise its birds with as little stress as possible.

Apple and berry growers voice fears that if their workers were given a day off during the harvest, much of the fruit would rot. And dairy farmers worry about who will milk the cows if their one hired hand has a day off.

"There are times when farmers need the extra help, and that may require having people work seven days a week," said John Lincoln, an upstate dairy farmer who is president of the state farm bureau.

This year, farm-worker advocates and labor unions have made day-of-rest legislation their primary goal to help New York's farm workers. Unlike almost all other workers in the state, farm workers lack certain rights, including the right to bargain collectively and time-and-a-half overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week.

"For those of us from a Judeo-Christian background, it's fundamental that everyone should be given a day of rest," said the Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry of New York.

Three times a day

Three times a day, Gonzales works to fatten the 350 ducks assigned to her, usually taking less than 30 seconds to feed each one. A short round-faced woman with ruddy cheeks, Gonzales moves slowly from pen to pen, pressing a finger under each bird's bill to open its mouth. She then uses a funnel, a plastic tube and a small motor to force cornmeal, up to a pound each feeding, down the ducks' throats. The farm's owners say the tube does not hurt because the birds have calcified esophaguses.

Many nights she sleeps only four hours, from 1:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m., because the schedule often requires her to feed the ducks from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., then 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and again in the afternoon.

"When you work 30 days straight, you lose out on a lot," said Gonzales, 29, the mother of two boys, 10 and 3. "I'd like to have more time to spend with my children. And there's never time to go to church."

Each worker repeats the force-feeding procedure more than 1,000 times a day. "Sometimes you get so tired, that you fall asleep right in the middle of a feeding," Gonzales said in Spanish. "Usually one of the ducks will wake you back up because it's hungry."

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