Raising venison is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries in the country, but that growth has yet to reach NH.
At Bonnie Brae Farms in Plymouth, Henry Ahern and Cindy Downing raise 250 European red deer, on 90 fenced-in acres.
'Bonnie Brae' means 'beautiful hillside' in Scots, but Ahern says it's not great land for most types of agriculture. Overgrown fields and rocky slopes – deer can handle it.
In fact, Ahern says they got into deer farming, twenty years ago, partly because deer are just so low-maintenance. They can graze on rough terrain, and generally breed and give birth without help. While red deer aren't native (it's illegal to sell white-tailed deer venison in New Hampshire), they also handle the climate well, and don't need to be kept in a barn in the winter.
“I found out that a good deer farmer works about half an hour to 45 minutes a day with his deer,” Ahern recalls, “and the rest of the day you sit on the veranda, eat jerky and drink beer!” And, he says, that's more or less how it's worked out.
Sure, getting all of that deer-proof fencing up – at about $10 a running foot – is pretty daunting in the beginning, but it ultimately pays for itself.
Ahern and Downing harvest 40-60 deer annually, selling for anything from $2 a pound for kidneys to $25 for roast. They also harvest antler velvet as a dietary supplement, which Ahern says is good for joints, stamina, and to promote healing.
The money is pretty good, as far as farming goes, but Bonnie Brae Farms could be selling a whole lot more. “We're running out of venison,” says Ahern. “We can't keep venison and it sells faster than we can produce it.”
And he adds there's only a tiny handful of deer farms in the region – not nearly enough to meet demand.
That's the case across the country, as more people want leaner, healthier meat, like deer and bison.
Shawn Schafer, the Executive Director of the North American Deer Farmer Association, says less than half of demand is filled domestically. “The majority of our venison actually comes in from New Zealand,” he says.
To try to change that, the deer farming industry is growing like crazy, at about 25-30% percent annually, mostly in the Midwest. Still, Schafer says there's more money in raising deer for hunting reserves, so demand for venison goes unmet.
Back in New Hampshire, the Corner House Inn, in Center Sandwich, is part of that demand. The restaurant is one of Bonnie Brae Farms' best customers, and for owner Don Brown, there's a lot to like about having a deer farm nearby.
“Probably first and foremost it's a unique item,” he says, “and being that it's an extremely healthy type of food, it gives us all the more reason to have it.”
“The fact that it's a locally-sourced item is probably as important as its uniqueness,” Brown adds.
As for Ahern, he says it's about time the deer farming boom seen out in the Midwest came to the Northeast.
Bonnie Brae also sells deer fencing, even if, for now, most farmers just want it to keep wild deer out.