Set the Table with Venison
Written onDecember 01 , 2010
Munger Street leads into Middlebury from the northeast, past the usual backroads array of double-wides, old farmhouses, and expansive new homes meant to look like old farmhouses. Driving along, you also pass a horse property, a cemetery full of leaning headstones, a small orchard of carefully tended apple trees, and a dairy with its barnyard full of tractors.
Then, just before Munger meets Painter Street, which will take you into town, a winding split-rail fence gives way to 8-foot-tall, welded-wire mesh. And if you slow down and you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some petite, spotted deer on the other side, browsing the rocky pasture near the barn. If this isn’t where you’d expect to find a herd of deer—in a pasture next to the road, rather than in the woods—it may be because this isn’t your average herd.
LedgEnd Deer Farm doesn’t have a sign, but the special fencing and the deer give it away. Plus, after more than 15 years of venison farming, owner Hank DiMuzio doesn’t need to advertise. “I can’t raise enough animals to keep up with demand as it is,” he says. “It’s a good problem to have.” And at a time when dairy farmers and other farmers are struggling to stay afloat, this problem has become increasingly rare.
Hank sells his lean, fine-grained venison to local restaurants, a few stores, and directly to customers who know where to find him. Restaurants use the meat for burgers, steak, meatloaf, and more. Doug Mack, chef-owner atMary’s Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, favors a “nose to tail” approach. “We’ve gone from simple cuts to chops, flanks, and livers,” he says, then pauses. “I think I was the first chef in Vermont to use deer tongue.”
Not your usual livestock
The dairy industry was in hard times in 1988, as it is now, when Vermont began to regulate and encourage venison farming as a way for hard-pressed farmers to “utilize the back 40—land that may not be good pasture but isn’t really woods or marsh, either,” Hank explains. Most of the regulations concern the control of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which is related to mad cow disease and affects most of the deer family. There is a risk of CWD passing from highly concentrated venison farms to wild populations of deer; when venison farming was allowed, only certain species were allowed to be raised. CWD is a primary reason why white-tailed deer are not legal to raise in New England; if CWD from a white-tailed deer farm hit the wild population, the toll could be severe.
The first species allowed to be raised was fallow deer, a European native and the breed that Hank raises. Later came red deer, elk, and reindeer. Each species enjoyed a surge of popularity until the realities of raising a semi-domesticated animal and the constraints of the market, which could only support so much “specialty” meat, kicked in. At the height of Vermont’s venison farming days, in the late 1990s, there were 50 venison farms operating; now there are roughly 20, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, but only about 8 of those are selling meat.
“It’s not like sheep or cows,” Hank continues. “You can’t just herd them wherever you want.” When the does fawn, they like to stay in their birth pasture for several weeks before they’re willing to move. However, Hank has found that the deer are “lighter on the land” than cows, both literally—a doe weighs only about 110 pounds, compared to 1,500 pounds for a mature Holstein, and therefore does not churn up or compact the pasture the way cows can—and because they eat a varied diet of browse and pasture. As for the bucks, Hank likes to keep them in a nearby pasture where he can “work with them,” singling out those who might approach him for an apple or other treat, and choosing his breeding stock from these friendlier individuals. In time, he hopes his herd will become easier to work, more like fully domestic stock.
With 400 to 500 animals and 100 acres, and with no regular help, one would think this would be a full-time job. But Hank also works off-farm, shift work that requires him to be away for long stretches of time and keep an irregular schedule. Venison farming, he says, fits well with his lifestyle. While the animals do need to be fed daily in the winter, during the summer months they graze on pasture and need little attention. Breeding, pasture rotation, and slaughter can be easily scheduled. A “really hardy species,” Hank has also found fallow deer to be disease resistant. In fact, he says, a recent study suggests that they may be naturally immune to normal transference of CWD.
While Hank has found the right number of animals to fit his time and land, he sees room for expansion in the venison business. “It’s a great form of agriculture that I wish more people would get into,” he comments. “But meat is a high-volume business. You can’t make money with just 20 animals.” The initial investment can be high—that 8-foot fence runs $3 per linear foot, and while the deer can spend the winter with minimal shelter, handling facilities must meet certain specifications in order to accommodate the deer. “You can’t just drive a trailer into the field and think you’re going to load them up,” he chuckles. However, Hank is hoping to find interested farmers to establish small herds and to act as feeder farms to supplement his own capacity. Venison farms, he adds, are good local businesses.
“Like any local industry, I use other local products,” Hanks says. “A farmer down the road does my custom work [like haying], and I get shell corn for winter energy feed from a local company.” In addition, the large fenced-in pastures provide ideal habitat for grassland birds like bobolinks and maintain open land. Plus, a venison farmer gets to look out his window and see graceful does, huge-antlered bucks, and “fawns bouncing around like gazelles.” Which, based on even a slow drive-by, is quite a sight to see.
Many sources agree that venison is best cooked no more than medium. “If you like your meat well done, get some beef,” Hanks quips. Unlike wild game, farm-raised venison has a mild flavor. Chef Doug Mack says he’s had customers who “didn’t believe it was venison.” He says the flavor is unique, tasting rich like liver, but not quite like either beef or wild deer.
Venison is a lean meat, which isn’t marbled with fat like beef can be; because of this, it dries easily in the heat of an oven or skillet. Tender cuts, such as those from the saddle or tenderloin, are best seared or grilled quickly over high heat; tougher cuts should be braised or stewed. Ground meat can be made into burgers and cooked like beef, but only to medium. “One of the pleasures of buying directly from a farmer,” Doug says, “is that you can cook your meat rare and you don’t have to worry about it—you know the farmer already worried about it for you.”
LedgEnd Farm’s venison is available at Gregg’s Meat Market in Middlebury, the Warren Store in Warren Village, and Healthy Living Market in Burlington. Other venison farms include Ridgeway Farm in Wardsboro (their red deer venison is found at the Brattleboro Co-opand Healthy Living Market), and Hollandeer Farm in Holland, which raises red deer and has an online store (hollandeerfarm.com).