Meet Detroit’s duck farmer
Suzanne Scoville raises fowl on a faded corner of the city’s east side
Published: February 22, 2012
Suzanne Scoville is at work in the kitchen of a house she owns on the east side of Detroit. She's making Dutch baby pancakes, and uses a manual eggbeater to whip them up. It is an unseasonably warm winter day, and her cat basks in a shaft of sunlight streaming in through the back window, gazing outside at — several ducks cavorting around in the backyard.
No, a flock of mallards hasn't decided to touch down in her yard. The ducks live there. In fact, these ducks provided the eggs for the pancakes she's making.
Scoville, affectionately dubbed "Mother Nature" by some neighbors, is an urban duck farmer. She looks the part of an urban resident gone granola, dressed casually in denim and wool, a crown of brown dreadlocks spilling from her head.
A graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School, Scoville received an English degree at Michigan State University, then got a job at a bookstore with lots of downtime. Leafing through books, she grew interested in designing sustainable architecture, sketching out her ideas. On a whim, she traveled out West and met seminal earth architect Nader Khalili, who helped pioneer low-impact adobe building in the United States. Scoville says, "I realized that I had already designed a low-impact house in my spare time. After seeing this stuff out West, I thought, 'What I drew up was an earthship.'"
She apprenticed for a week and then got a job working in "natural building," involving adobe, passive solar, and off-the-grid living. For Scoville, it was an inspiration.
"You experience how much energy goes into a home, and you gain a lot of respect for it. You get kind of uptight about wasting energy."
Now supporting herself with a day job as a building contractor, she's incorporating a lot of that into her east side properties, including the small house she lives in, the empty lots, and the large two-story house she's cooking in today, which she hopes to use for lectures, workshops and as a bed-and-breakfast. In fact, in May she plans to host renowned Austrian permaculture expert Sepp Holzer, aka the "rebel farmer." Also, this March, she'll teach a poultry care and cooking workshop where kids will do an egg hunt and learn how to handle ducks without spooking or harming them.
A flush of ducks in the yard may sound odd at first, but once you know Scoville, they're just another one of the enterprises that seem to have evolved organically in and around her home over the last eight years. There's the garden across street, for instance, which she tends with her neighbors. Then there's the rooftop garden she's designing, to use space better, or the kitchen she often uses as a canning space.
In fact, the ducks came relatively late. It started in 2010, when Woodbridge Pub approached Kate Devlin of the Spirit of Hope garden in Cass Corridor, hoping to find a source for local eggs. Devlin referred the restaurant to Scoville, who had some experience with egg-laying poultry.
Scoville's mom once lived on a farm and had chickens, and Scoville felt they were stupid and dirty. Yet the idea of boosting her self-sufficiency made birds a good fit. After spending an hour watching domesticated ducks at a cider mill, and realizing that ducks laid delicious eggs, she started adding up the advantages.
For instance, she notes, more so than ducks, chickens can have health problems that can require expensive medication and veterinary visits. Ducks possess what she calls an "unreal immune system." Ducks handle cold better than chickens. Surprisingly, she says ducks are also more docile than chickens, as well as smarter and more resilient. Scoville says, "Chickens are often so stupid they can drown in puddles."
She also has found that domesticated ducks have their natural instincts intact, and don't lose their ability to survive as quickly as some say. Indeed, with her help, her birds have fended off opossums and even a hawk attack.
Scoville took the plunge toward the end of summer 2010, ordering four Gold Star Hybrids from a hatchery. The project went so well that Scoville expanded her capacity in spring 2011, adding four Welsh Harlequins and adopting a rescued mallard named "Scrapper."
Not everything has gone as intended. She wanted the birds for the eggs and manure, but also to curb the slug problem in her backyard garden.
"They ate the slugs," she says. "And then they ate the garden."
Luckily, the garden across the street leaves another spot to grow produce, and Scoville is planning to grow things that the ducks can't get at, including fruit trees, Concord grapes and strawberries on the coop's living roof.
In fact, that living roof has turned out to be quite a success. She says that, between the roof, the ducks' body heat and the composting floor of straw and duck droppings, it stays warm in there in the winter.
Joking about her house, which is a project in constant progress, she says, "My ducks have a better house than I do."
Not only are the ducks hardy and cheap to keep, they're darn entertaining. Scoville can point out the ducks by name, and can describe their individual personalities as they waddle around. No sooner has she emptied a muddy wading pool and refilled it for them than the ducks begin leaping in and swimming. Soon a drake occupies the center of the pool and has his way with any duck who'll swim with him. He isn't gentle with his harem, but they don't seem to mind.
> Email Michael Jackman