On a winding road in southeastern Minnesota, there's a 60-acre farm unlike any other in the Midwest.
Au Bon Canard, or "good duck" in French, is where Christian Gasset raises ducks to produce a culinary delicacy: foie gras, or fattened duck liver. The Au Bon Canard duck livers — along with breasts, wings and other parts — end up on plates of the most celebrated restaurants in the Upper Midwest.
Inside a barn on Gasset's farm on a recent morning, four long wooden pens each held about 16 adult male ducks, with room for the ducks to walk around. Gasset and his wife, Liz Gibson-Gasset, moved slowly to keep the birds calm.
"With foie gras, the really big thing is you can't have a good product if you're not treating your ducks well," she said. "If they're unhappy, if they're stressed out, if anything's wrong with their living conditions, you don't get a good product."
But as much as the Gassets try to keep their birds content, how they and other foie gras producers feed ducks makes the product controversial. Animal rights activists say the process used to fatten the ducks' livers amounts to animal torture.
The Gassets, who started their business in 2004, raise and slaughter about 2,100 males ducks a year, a fraction of what their competitors in New York and California produce. The birds on their farm are Mullard ducks, a cross between Pekins and Muscovies. They arrived from California as day-old chicks.
After living the first few weeks in a temperature-controlled room, they spend another eight weeks or so outdoors, eating a mixture of corn, bugs and grass before going into the barn for controlled feedings.
Twice a day for the last two weeks of a duck's life, Gasset tilts the bird's head back, inserts an eight-inch funnel into its throat and pours three-quarters of a pound of freshly cooked kettle corn down the duck's esophagus.
The corn goes into a small organ called the crop, which Gasset massages for a few seconds as he pulls the funnel out. It takes him seven seconds to feed each bird.
Gasset said controlling the amount of corn the duck ingests during the last two weeks of its life plumps its liver up to 10 times its normal size — making it foie gras. As the liver's color changes from black to yellow, its texture becomes creamy, like butter.
Gasset said the process is meant to mimic the way a bird puts on weight before fall migration, even though the ducks never migrate. To him, many of those who criticize the process simply don't want anyone to eat meat and see foie gras as an easy target.
"It's such a small production and you kind of target the rich people, because it's a really extremely expensive product at the end," he said.
But animal rights activists say there's nothing natural about putting that much food in an animal at once.
"I do appreciate that he's working on a smaller scale than other foie gras farms, and he can give a little bit more time and attention to individual birds," said Sarahjane Blum, an activist with the Animal Rights Coalition of Minneapolis. "I cannot reconcile the opinion of the farmer — that this is not a form of animal cruelty — with the pictures that I've seen come off of the farm, with the practices he says he engages in."
Blum is launching a Twin Cities campaign called Forgo Foie Gras, to convince restaurants to keep the item off their menus. The campaign is aimed at restaurants that do not serve foie gras, and Blum said the group so far has verbal commitments from a dozen restaurants.
Blum, a vegan since 1996, said force-feeding ducks to plump their livers is inhumane and causes trauma to the bird's beak, esophagus and other internal organs.
"There is no way to produce foie gras, to get a liver to expand to 10 times its healthy size, without engaging in animal cruelty," she said.
The force-feeding technique, known as "gavage," fattens the duck's liver from an average of three ounces to up to 1.25 pounds. Gasset said the technique dates back to ancient Egypt and does not harm the birds.
"I hate when people say force-feeding, because I don't force them," he said. "I control the amount of corn they eat. That's really important."
The ethical debate over whether a duck suffers during the force-feeding process has led to government action in some places. In 2006, Chicago officials passed a ban on the sale of foie gras that the city later repealed. A statewide ban in California will take effect next year.
Chef Mike Brown, who describes foie gras as nutty, lightly toasted and aromatic, said it is a staple at his Robbinsdale restaurant, Travail. He said it's hard to convince people who want it outlawed.
"There's no way you're going to change that belief no matter what, because it's what they believe," Brown said. "It's not what they think, it's not what they've seen. It's what they believe."
Blum, of the Animal Rights Coalition, said there's no reason for anyone to order foie gras at a restaurant.
"There's no argument that can be made that foie gras is good for human health, that it is really in any way necessary for the standard American diet to continue, or that it is something that is going to be deeply missed if it leaves the marketplace," she said.
For Blum, foie gras is synonymous with cruelty, regardless of where it's produced.
Gasset said he understands such strong feelings. But he said all but those adamantly opposed to his product might accept it, if they could see how the ducks are cared for.
"If they come here and spend three months and do the whole thing, then they'll have a better idea," he said. "And I think they will change their minds, you know."