• Editor's Note Winter 2011

    Editor's Note Winter 2011

    I’ve never fired a gun. The closest I ever came to one as a child was at my aunt’s house. She’s a cattle rancher in Arizona and often kept a pistol by her phone. I’d walk past it gingerly, as if getting too close meant it would suddenly go off like a stick of remote-controlled dynamite. Having grown up in a big city, I’d always associated guns with hot-headed maliciousness and revenge.

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  • Set the Table with Venison

    Set the Table with Venison

    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.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Good Walls Make  Good Gardens

    Good Walls Make Good Gardens

    The phrase “New England stone walls” conjures images of dilapidated boundary walls winding through our forests, half buried by leaves and by the sharp turns of our region’s economy. But stone, and stone walls in particular, are enjoying a renaissance, of sorts, as gardeners are discovering that the simplest stone work can lend structure, meaning, and a living complement to the seasonal and perennial plantings of an outdoor space. I first discovered my passion for stone work while helping a friend build a stone bread oven near Hardwick.

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  • Counting Their Chickens

    Counting Their Chickens

    Yes, there is a knoll—and it’s misty.

    At least it was on the day this past October when I visited Misty Knoll Farms, Vermont’s largest chicken producer. Standing on the small rise at the eastern edge of the farm in New Haven, facing a swath of Addison County dairy land below and the spine of the Green Mountains beyond, I spotted a light fog in the valley that looked misty enough.

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  • A Food and Farming Legacy

    A Food and Farming Legacy

    The spine of Vermont is made up of green, craggy mountainsides whose tops disappear into the clouds, and whose valleys wake up to a cloak of low mist that dissipates with the morning sun. Most accounts of the musical von Trapp family’s arrival in Vermont mention how they were instantly attracted to these views, which reminded them of their Austrian home. A lesser-known tale, however, is that they also fell in love with the land itself: generations of von Trapps, including the youngest generation today, have been working to feed and nourish themselves and their neighbors ever since the family put down roots here.

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  • Why I Hunt

    Why I Hunt

    It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize I was pretty much raised as a localvore long before anyone had ever heard of the word. And it wasn’t due to any sort of middle-class shift in culinary consciousness. This was the early 1960s, and we were a large working-class family with a very rural home on three open acres in Westminster. We planted large vegetable gardens, had a big potato patch, and raised chickens, ducks, and on occasion, grass-fed beef. We also hunted, and venison was a year-round staple. More on that a little later, but all of this was really just a reflection of how my parents’ families had dealt with the Great Depression.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—The Versatile Quince

    Farmers' Kitchen—The Versatile Quince

    When asked “Why quince?” Zeke Goodband, the orchard manager at Scott Farm in Dummerston, will answer, “Because they are a wonderful fruit.” So wonderful that he sips on quince nectar during the farm’s annual Heirloom Apple Day, when he leads three apple tastings and speaks at length about the many heritage apple varieties growing at Scott Farm.

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  • Last Morsel Baking Bread in the Firebox

    Last Morsel Baking Bread in the Firebox

    My 85-year-old friend, Gladys Thomas, used a wood cook stove all her life. After her children left the farm in Jericho and her husband died, she did her best to keep the place going by herself. As she grew older, members of her church tried to help.

    “Now you just let that wood pile be, Gladys,” a church member told her on the phone one day, “and we’ll have a bunch of men come and split it for you.”

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Set the Table with Venison

Deer

Written By

Caitlin Gildrien

Written on

December 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.

Cooking Venison

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).

About the Author

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien is a writer and graphic designer in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. With her husband and two small children, she also grows several acres of organic vegetables and medicinal herbs on their 200-year-old farmstead.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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