From Muscovy duck to Toulouse goose, Ottawa’s duck guy calls A-P home

Andrew Coppolino
From Muscovy duck to Toulouse goose, Ottawa’s duck guy calls A-P home
Walker proudly shows off one his geese at Mariposa Farm in Alfred-Plantagenet. Over 40 years of business, Walker’s has become the go-to guy for Ottawa restaurants looking for local duck, geese and specialty pork. (Photo : Andrew Coppolino)

In their large, open chicken coop with its ample shelter and soft straw bedding, more than a dozen Rhode Island Reds converge to peck hungrily at their morning feed at Mariposa Farm in Plantagenet. Twirling just over their wobbly, bright red combs – and out of context – is a mirror disco ball. 

“When the sun hits it, it sparkles everywhere. Lindsay, a friend here on the farm, put it there,” says Mariposa farmer Ian Walker, also an Alfred and Plantagenet municipal councillor.  

While they aren’t exactly equals to John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” the Reds strut quite happily, so the whimsy of the disco ball is perhaps fitting. 

While the flock forages, dust bathes and flaps their wings with comic swagger during the carefree course of their morning, the chores at Mariposa continue for Walker and his partner and co-farmer Suzanne Lavoie.  

The 110 acres of mixed farming supply dozens of restaurants in the Ottawa-Gatineau area with ducks, geese, and pork from Duroc and Tamworth pigs as well as a smaller inventory of guinea hens, bison and wild boar raised on other local farms and which Mariposa sells, either online or at their Saturday farm market. 

Add to that blend the small-scale farmers who rent land from Walker and Lavoie for community-shared agriculture (CSA) programs and Mariposa is a bounty of agricultural output only about an hour from downtown Ottawa. 

The local concept is the passion that drives Mariposa, as is a dedication to sustainable and regenerative farming practices over the past four decades: Ottawa-born Walker purchased the farm in 1980 when he was 19 years old – and when he was apparently something of rabble-rouser and thumbing his nose gently at institutions. 

“I was freshly expelled from school – that being Ashbury. It was located on Mariposa Avenue, and I always liked the word Mariposa,” he says of the origin of the farm’s name.   

Mariposa Farm is a recognizable name when it comes to Muscovy (or Barbary) ducks, a species native to North and South America. They are black and white in colour and, perhaps surprisingly for ducks, silent – unlike the raucous and enormous geese with whom they share quarters in the barn.   

As ducks go, the species is a relatively slim one too: “les canards maigre,” according to Walker, with lots of meat but not a lot of fat. Unlike the uniformity of the popular Pekin duck, with males and females essentially the same size, Muscovy males dress out to 3.5 kgs and the females 1.5 kgs, he notes. 

Fat or slim is also only one way of describing the food and beverage industry and its allied agricultural fields since the pandemic ground the industries to halt and shuttered restaurants. That, of course, meant that farmers like Walker went from making a good dollar for their produce to zero in those early months. 

But Mariposa survived: their “pandemic pivot” – a popular phrase in the Covid-19 lexicon – was to focus on online retail sales, Walker explains, competing with the honking and screeching of the geese, a cross between Chinese and Toulouse varieties. He says being in the farming business, pandemic or not, is about being able to adjust quickly and follow the market. 

“That’s still being done, and that’s a benefit from the pandemic. Mariposa is doing well, so we have two businesses (modes) for selling our meat,” he says.  

While Ottawa makes up roughly 90 per cent of Mariposa’s business – the Muscovy ducks heading to Beckta for pâté en croûte or magret with shimeji mushrooms or a duck confit that’s on the Brassica menu, for example – the remaining 10 per cent of business is local, which has perhaps a more heavily weighted significance for Walker and Lavoie: Mariposa distributes produce from a dozen local farms that are within 50 to 100 kilometres. 

While he keeps the former rabble-rousing quality in check, Walker is quick to point out, with the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, the smorgasbord of bureaucratic inefficiencies at all levels of government, insurance companies and financial institutions that continue to throw up obstacles for farmers.  

Walker, as he cites his own examples, just as quickly points out that he’s working to correct issues as the Ward 2 councillor for the Township.  

Even though its success is well established over more than 40 years, Mariposa faces a succession obstacle that is a growing agrarian concern as small local farms disappear or are consumed by large agriculture businesses and investment companies: his children have made it clear that they aren’t interested in taking over the farm. 

“I understand that reality,” says Walker. “It’s a very, very hard business.”  

Another pressing issue for Mariposa and Walker is one that is pressing for all of us: the environment.  

“It’s a big one,” he says, adding he’s preparing for changes he anticipates are just around the corner. 

“I’m a little bit embarrassed as a generation by how we’ve screwed this up for my grandchildren. It’s not affecting my business just yet, but you can see that it’s coming,” Walker says. “The weather is obviously changing and becoming more dramatic, no snow and then suddenly a lot of snow, there’s more windstorms, and I think it’s going to be extremely hot in the summers. That’s not good for the animals.” 

The talk of existential climate threat fades for a moment, though, as the chickens strut and the geese strike up another chorus of their goose racket. For now, Walker and Lavoie are focussed on Mariposa Farm and their integration and alliances with the nearby community of local farmers: that’s a primary message he wants people to hear. 

“I want customers who have visited us to feel good that the money they have spent is staying very local and helping us but also several other farmers too,” he says. “There’s a big difference between buying from a mainstream grocery store and buying from a small farm.” 

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