Out of the wild and onto the farm

When Henry Ahern's first 27 red deer ambled off the trailer and onto his grandfather's farm 13 years ago, he was just looking for a way to save the 200 acres from developers.

He'd considered farming cattle, elk, bison, or even fish. But when he learned that the U.S. imported more than — million pounds of deer meat a year from New Zealand, he became convinced a niche domestic market could be created.

He was right. Since he started Bonnie Brae Farms, farmed venison has become a fast-growing cottage industry fueled by strong interest in the low-fat, low-cholesterol meat with all the flavor but none of the gamy bitterness of its wild cousin.

Today, Ahern manages a herd of more than 300 red deer, which are larger and a deeper red than the white-tailed deer that roam wild through much of North America. And demand is strong enough that he frequently runs short of meat.

"After 13 years, I can still stand out here and watch them all day," he said recently at his farm as he was mobbed by the 500-pound animals that nuzzled him like puppies. That is, puppies with velvety antler racks nearly a yard wide.

Eating farm-raised venison is a different experience from eating deer raised in the wild.

"It's a beautiful meat," says Cory Hussey, chef de cuisine at The Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., one of a growing number of restaurants serving domestic venison. The meat lackes the "super afterbite" of that of wild deer, he said.

That's because the regular, more controlled diet farmed deer are fed, as well as professional butchering, reduces the bitterness sometimes found in hunted deer.

Just 20 years ago, the farmed venison industry barely existed in the U.S. Most meat came from New Zealand, home to half the world's farmed deer. This year the country will export $200 million worth of deer products, mostly to Europe and South Korea.

But domestic farms such as Ahern's have been chipping away at New Zealand's domination.

There were nearly 3,000 deer farms in the U.S. as of 2002, most of them new, according to the most recent federal data. The average deer farm has just 82 deer, according to a recent study by Texas AM's Agricultural and Food Policy Center.

That same study also said that while deer farming remains small, it is "perhaps the fastest growing industry in rural America."

That's partly because deer can thrive on small &

though not crowded &

farms, making it easy for mom-and-pop startups.

And while the federal government does not track venison sales, sales definitely are growing, says Shawn Schafer, executive director of the Minnesota-based North American Deer Farmer's Association.

Though farmed venison remains scarce in most parts of the country, more natural foods chains and meat markets have begun carrying it. It also has become a staple of many farmers markets, and most farms sell it by mail order.

Restaurant chefs have developed an appreciation for it, too. Venison is practically a staple at Western-themed restaurants such as the Craftwood Inn in Manitou Springs, Colo., where the Wild Grill entree includes farmed elk, deer and antelope.

General Manager Jeff Harsh says it's one of the restaurant's most popular dishes.

"I tell people, it's a little unique, but if you like red meat, you're going to like at least two of them," Harsh says.

Farm-raised venison even has made guest appearances on the Food Network's Iron Chef program. And the network's Web site features nearly 100 venison recipes.

Not surprisingly, venison is most common where farming is big &

Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and Minnesota.

For many farmers, one of the appeals of the farmed deer industry is multiple sources of revenue. Besides the meat, antler and hide markets, many farms supply hunting preserves and make money from selling breeding stock.

The industry's growth hasn't always been easy. It's still emerging from setbacks stemming from the chronic wasting disease scare in 2001, when the disease was discovered in some farmed elk in Colorado.

While the disease is not believed to pass from deer to humans, wildlife officials remain concerned about the disease's potential to spread between captive and wild herds. The concerns led to new &

and varying &

state regulations on raising and selling deer.

Depending on the state, live animals often can't be sold across state lines, which has quashed the breeding market. Some states also ban the import of certain cuts of meat.

Perhaps most damaging to the industry was South Korea's 2001 ban on imports of North American deer products, including antlers. South Korea is the leading importer of antlers and antler products, using them for medicines and dietary supplements.

The ban caused the price of antlers to plummet from nearly $100 a pound to $8 to $12 per pound, U.S. farmers say. Prices have since stabilized at around $20 per pound, thanks in part to a developing U.S. market for antler-based supplements.

From a distance, the herds on most deer farms easily could be mistaken for wild animals, albeit kept safely away from the road by the 8- or 10-foot fences required in most states.

The red deer, one of the most common breeds used in farming, are more closely related to the elk that range wild in the West than to the white-tailed deer or mule deer common to the rest of the nation.

Schafer hopes Americans develop a taste for venison the way they have for bison, another low-fat red meat that has become increasingly common during the last decade.

Like bison, a — 1/2-ounce serving of venison loin has about 150 calories and 2.4 grams of fat, compared with 6.6 grams for the same portion of skinless chicken or 10 grams in a portion of beef sirloin.

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