A hail call breaks the morning quiet, followed by a whisper of distant wings. The boy sharply inhales and then turns a discerning eye and the barrel of his gun upwards to match the gaze of his sidekick. His dog whimpers in excitement. Water ripples around the dog’s body as he trembles in anticipation to retrieve.
True to a southern upbringing, a passionate teen explored hunting opportunities and pursued field trial gold with his loyal shadow, an eager black Labrador retriever named... of course, Scout. The two were thick as cattail thieves, always training for the ideal feather forecast, desperate to a fault for a next adventure. Their undeniable bond and partnership were forged in muddy cypress bottoms and on the water’s edge where the fowl play.
You may have spotted the duo at a field trial or twenty, both fit with such drive and energy they teetered on the possibility of spontaneous combustion. Watching these two in their youthful intensity likely made most veteran dog trainers ache deep in their tired bones, yet envious to a degree.
Imagining the limits that were likely tested in those formative years by this boy and his dog begs to question, who really trained who? May we all recall a moment in our childhoods when a good dog, the right dog, made a lasting impact on our lives and shaped a story such as that of Mitch and Scout. Asking these two to chart a different course would have been the equivalent of pouring water on a duck’s back.
Exceptional waterfowlers and retrievers are in a category all their own. However, his experience training and competing with Scout at a professional level, along with many other dogs, gave Mitch Easom a keen understanding of what was needed for a successful field trial or desirable hunt test — quality Mallard ducks! And a drive to be the best meant raising the best. Neither Mitch nor Scout would settle for less.
“Good quality ducks make a difference! Nobody, within 6 hours of Americus, Georgia, could get them.”
According to the Ducks Unlimited organization, the highest wild Mallard densities occur in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and North and South Dakota. Populations have benefited greatly from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other grassland restoration efforts in the northern Prairies of the United States, where populations have continued to increase. They feed on seeds, rootlets, and tubers of aquatic plants in forested wetlands, ponds, lakes, and swamp and river bottoms.
Although the Mallard is a popular game bird, it remains the most numerous and successful duck species in North America. It can readily adapt to human disturbance, and it thrives in suburban and even urban areas, also making Mallards the most harvested duck in North America. The male Mallard duck, called a drake or greenhead, sports a glossy green head, a white ring around its neck and a rich, chestnut-brown breast. The mottled brown female mallard dulls in comparison next to the male’s showy feathers.
Mitch, along with his father, Rennie Easom, built a small pen in 2016 and purchased their first 1,200 mallard ducklings from a hatchery in California. This experiment marked the beginning of Easom Farms. Mitch, still in high school, was just seventeen years old.
“We raised those 1,200. We sold em’. Purchased 2,500 ducklings next. Sold those. We just kept building additional pens, doubling our chick order each time. We went to 30,000 ducklings in just four years,” Easom said casually, undermining the labors he most certainly put in.
Birds of a Feather
Starting a duck farm operation is no easy feat. There is little information and fewer resources available to those getting started. “You can find anything you want to find and more on a chicken, the same does not apply for ducks. The learning curve was steep,” said Easom. “God led each step of the way.”
Mitch realized early in his business venture that the missing piece to his operation was an expert, a scientist. From there, the social media universe hatched its own plan. A friend suggestion on Facebook led Mitch to make introductions with a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Poultry Science program. She had just finished Veterinary School at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. She didn’t live far, and she was quick to address some of Mitch’s concerns about his ducks. The questions about his operation turned into a date, which later segwayed into a question to marry him. Tanzy had been the missing piece in more ways than one.
Mitch and Tanzy married in 2021. Outside of working at a local veterinarian clinic in Americus, Tanzy consults on the farm, lends an extra hand, and helps raise their daughter, a 3-month-old named Billie. “We think her first word is going to be “Quack,” chuckled Mitch. “Duck calls soothe her to sleep. She goes where we go.”
“Mitch’s determination matches his love for the outdoors,” says Tanzy Easom. “This operation is more than a passion project for him. He truly strives to grow quality birds and make customers happy. Mitch puts in hard work and long hours himself, but the farm wouldn’t be where it is today without family, especially without his dad.”
Mitch’s mother, Leisa Easom, also plays a vital role in the financial success of their family business as a “weekend warrior.” Leisa helps guide Mitch’s business decisions as a bookkeeper, gathers eggs, counts ducks, and provides childcare for her granddaughter.
As the saying goes, birds of a feather, flock together. Two more dedicated employees round out operations on Easom Farms and create a support system to keep things running year-round.
Eggs In a Basket
Easom Farms wanted to control the entire process from egg to flight and ensure customers get “the most bang for their buck.” To scale their business, the Easoms incorporated a hatchery. When larger numbers of duck eggs are to be hatched, large commercial incubators (setters) and hatchers are normally used.
Female Mallards lay an average of 1 egg per day. Once duck eggs are collected from the hens on the farm, they rest in an air-conditioned room until enough eggs are collected for an incubator cycle. The eggs are then washed and placed in a Nature Form I 14, a large drum that can hold up to 14,040 eggs on trays, at one time. The incubator gently rotates eggs every hour at a temperature of 99.5 degrees for 23 days. The rotation keeps the yolk in the middle of the eggs, resulting in a better hatch rate.
On day 23, the eggs are “candled” where each egg is handled by hand and placed to a light source. Light only passes through a bad egg that does not contain a growing chick. Only the healthy eggs are lifted, 30 at a time, via an egg lifter (vacuum) that places them carefully on flat baskets, prime positioning for hatching. From there, the baskets are placed in the hatcher at a temperature of 98.6 degrees with a 72 percent humidity setting for four days or when the ducklings finally emerge from their shells. Humidity plays a vital role in the hatching process. Too dry, and the shells harden and stick to the new ducklings.
Once ducklings have hatched and trays are pulled, the team quietly counts each duck as they place them in a brooder. “Talking arouses the ducklings and can cause piling.” Piling is a term used to describe frantic ducklings who rush to a central location and begin piling on top of each other, causing harm and possible suffocation. But once in the brooder, they are free to eat, drink, and socialize for 10 days. “At this point, noise is beneficial. “I pop my head in there several times a day stimulating them to be active and turn to water and food.” The brooder is an insulated, heated room with slated floors. Each duckling has one dew clipped, marking them for domestication.
Following the brooder, the ducks are led to a large young bird pen with fresh shavings, nipple line drinking systems, a run yard, shade, and chicken wire fencing. Platforms are built in the pen so water and waste can pass through for easier cleaning.
From the brooder, the fresh birds are then led to larger, free-range holding pens until they’re considered fully grown and sold at around 4 weeks of age. A percentage of these are pulled for the flight-ready pens.
Approximately 1,500 layers (females) and 400 drakes are pulled and kept on the farm, isolated from each other until breeding time. After time, they are transitioned from the breeding pens and blended in with the ducks in the flight-ready pens.
This process repeats each breeding-hatching cycle.
Easom Farms currently has four, one-acre pens exclusively for flight-ready birds. Each one-acre pen includes its own pond. Every pond has a food supply on a steep embankment that encourages ducks to fly down to the water as opposed to walking. This exercise develops their wings and helps the ducks grow stronger.
These free-range pens are partially open, so it is not unusual to see a group of ducks fly above the pens several times a day. But luckily for the Easoms, ducks have a strong flock instinct and don’t like to be alone.
These ducks are kept in these open pens until they are 5 months old and then sold. A new group of flight-ready ducks is rotated in every 2 months.
Predation from local wildlife is minimal with protection consisting of chicken wire, shade barns, and the family’s Pyrenees dog, Bear, who roams freely throughout the night.
The family relies heavily on FRM (Flint River Mills) chick starter for their ducklings. Brooder birds are fed 21 percent protein until 12 days of age and then graduate to 18 percent protein until 28 days of age. They are then fed a 15 percent protein pellet. Gradually they begin mixing grain into the feed with a 60 percent grain and 40 percent pellet mixture.
The farm’s litter pile is a valuable part of the production. The litter pile consists of shavings, duck waste, and unhealthy eggs – an effective fertilizer for their fields that grow feed for their ducks. The Easoms grow wheat and sorghum, which they harvest themselves to mix with the pellets.
Easom Farm offers various product options for consumers which diversifies the business and ensures success. “This is a year-round business with year-round sales and overlapping seasons.”
One percent of sales are for Mallard duck eggs. These are mostly purchased by schools and universities doing research.
Another one percent of sales are for quality taxidermy Mallards. These are full-grown ducks (mostly drakes), that are hand-selected based on optimal appearance. These are sold to taxidermists looking to replace a damaged trophy mallard or for taxidermy competitions. “I choose the ones that have two to three curls on their tale.”
Twenty percent of sales are attributed to ducklings. The majority of these ducklings are sold to plantations that pen them and create a brooder setup. They are trained for duck hunts.
Forty percent of sales are for four-week olds (drakes and hens). These are sold to a few plantations; however, most go to regional and national field trial events (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee).
Ten percent of sales are for frozen ducks to be used by dog trainers.
And approximately thirty percent of sales are for flight-ready ducks.
With a warehouse equipped with six commercial freezers, the Easoms can ship to 49 states (via commercial airline). The warehouse is also equipped with Co2 – a euthanasia form approved by the Veterinary Medical Association for Poultry Practices.
Mallard ducklings are sold in boxes of 100. The boxes are designed with ventilated quadrants and cups for grow gel (nutrition for travel). The farm can also personally deliver up to 20,000 ducklings each trip by ventilated cattle trailers.
Full-grown and flight-ready ducks are only available for pickup and delivery only. The farm can deliver up to 5,000 minors and 2,500 full-grown ducks at a time. They have monthly routes that they frequently travel which allows them the flexibility to plan for new stops.
None of the ducks raised on or sold from Easom Farms are meant for human consumption.
Easom Farms proudly provides birds for the following organizations and has been a game steward of the following events (just to name a few) and many others throughout the southeastern U.S.
Organizations: Southwest Georgia AKC Retriever Club, Southwest Georgia UKC Hunting Retriever Club, Tall Pines Retriever Club, and Fox Hollow Kennels
Field Trials: UKC International Grand Master National AKC Retriever Club Fall Test – Thomasville, GA & Boston, GA; Sand Hill Retrievers – Lincolnton, GA; Black Creek Lodge – McIntyre, GA; Wiley Creek Hunting Preserve – Waleska, GA; Oak Grove Plantation – Bascom, FL; Southwind Plantation – Attapulgus, GA; and Brannan & Brannan Hunts – Lucedale, Mississippi
Ducks In a Row
Like most businesses, the Easoms match their production to demand. They plan their hatching schedule by talking to buyers (plantations and field trial facilitators) in March. They also discuss demand out West and pay close attention to disruptions with other duck farms.
“We have a great team that has allowed us to double production each year. However, we are currently experiencing growing pains. We have maxed out capacity and need to build additional pens. We also need to develop more automated systems that are less labor-intensive, like adding a different wash system and easier vaccinations. Right now, we distribute medicated feed to ducklings instead of running medication through water lines and dispense other vaccinations through foggers.”
Other challenges include stubborn hens. “Later in the season, the hen’s desire to breed plummets. Therefore, hatchability goes down.”
In 2022, Easom Farms hatched 95,000 eggs. In 2023, they are projected to hatch 125,000 – 130,000 eggs. Each year, they sell out.
Mitch Easom’s ultimate goal is set on hatching 200,000 ducks and is making plans to get there as early as 2024.
“One of the strengths of the Farm Credit System is the depth of resources available to provide capital, services or education throughout our member’s unique farm operations,” said Brian Wilson, Senior Relationship Manager with Southwest Georgia Farm Credit and neighbor to the Easom’s farm. “Farm Credit has been a reliable source of financing for land, real estate, equipment, operating, leases and education for member-owners and will continue to be a great resource for generations to come. I am proud to watch the Easom family grow their farm and plan for the future.”