By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
“Why a duck, why a no chicken?” — Chico Marx in “The Cocoanuts”
When you reach Jim Reichardt’s voicemail, he announces himself as “Duck Man.” It’s a fitting moniker for a man whose family has been raising ducks for four generations.
Reichardt, 56, raises the feathered delicacies in Petaluma, but his Liberty Ducks have been bred for the kind of flavor sought by gourmet chefs and upscale restaurants nationwide. He raises about 100,00 ducks a year, selling them to clients from Sonoma County to New York City restaurants like Perse, Daniel and LeBernardin. Through a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, distributor, they also find their way onto private yachts for gourmet dining at sea.
But it was Jim’s great-grandfather Otto Reichardt Sr., a German who immigrated to the U.S. in 1870, who started the family poultry business. Otto Sr. settled in San Francisco, finding work as a house painter. After years in the trade, the toxic paint fumes took their toll and a change in employment was the only recommended cure.
He chose poultry as his next vocation and decided that Petaluma’s climate and thriving poultry business would be just what the doctor ordered. He moved his family to a ranch on McNear Hill above what is now the veteran’s auditorium.
As the 20th century began, Otto Sr. started his new business, raising chickens and a few ducks. He quickly discovered that restaurants and markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown were clamoring for the main ingredient in their world-famous Peking Duck. Within two years he specialized to supply their demand.
Otto Sr. sold the McNear spread, moving back to Onondaga Avenue in the heart of San Francisco. Even Jim Reichardt admits that it’s hard to picture a chicken ranch in the middle of the City by the Bay.
At the time, Otto Sr.’s choice made perfect sense, given that most of his business was done in Chinatown. The rows of glazed ducks you now see hanging in Grant Street shop windows were his stock in trade.
In the early 1920s, he moved the farm/business to South San Francisco, where it thrived and provided for the growing family. In 1958, when Jim Reichardt was 2, the city of South San Francisco confiscated the duck farm under the laws of eminent domain to build what was to become El Camino High School. It was time for another move.
By this time Jim’s uncle, Otto Jr., and his father, Donald Reichardt, were running the operation and once again chose Petaluma as the right place to move. The family was hopeful that this move would be their last.
Jim Reichardt remembers his father telling him that “we couldn’t continue in the duck business because its future was not solid enough. He told us that there were only two major duck farms west of the Mississippi and if one slowed down or faded, he was worried we would have no viable job skills.”
With that warning, Reichardt earned a degree in architecture from Heald College of Engineering and went on to study photography at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Even so, he knew he would eventually return to the family trade.
It wasn’t a question of “if,” he said, as much as “when.”
His father owns and operates the Reichardt Duck Farm, but in 1992, Reichardt said, “I split off from the family business. I wanted to do a different style of duck because of the formation of a budding and sophisticated market demand.
“When master chefs would return from traveling in Europe on tours designed to widen their culinary skills and overview, they always wanted to know why they couldn’t procure the style and quality of duck they had experienced there.”
With his Sonoma County Poultry, he fills that void with the Liberty Duck product line. While traditional animals are allowed to age only six and a half weeks, his are allowed to grow for nine and a half weeks.
“The slower raising time allows the flavors to develop,” he explained, and results in a duck with more meat, less fat and thicker breasts — all points of sale in the industry. His clients find him primarily by word-of-mouth.
“When chefs travel to wine country for research, they discover our product,” he said.
After 20 years in business, he found Slow Food in 2002, joining with others who want to preserve the heritage techniques endemic to small farms, and for the past eight years he has been co-leader of the 250-member Russian River convivium (chapter).
“I’ve gone back to what my great-grandfather was doing,” he said. “I’ve gotten rid of the industrial age of agriculture’s influence and returned to simplistic raising traditions.
“There is value to the small farming product that corporate farming just can’t replicate.”
Peering into the future, Reichardt said he has always wanted to build a processing plant and is looking for the right property.
He wants one that is zoned correctly, has access to water and has the right setting. He says something between 10 and 30 acres would do nicely.