Deer, elk farmers finding niche

When the 2007 census of Agriculture is published early next year, it will include data for the first

When the 2007 census of Agriculture is published early next year, it will include data for the first time on deer and elk farms, one of the newer ventures a state farmers group believes has grown markedly in the past 10 years.

The New York Deer & Elk Farmers Association commissioned a survey and study of deer and elk farms and found there were 564 farms raising deer and elk with more than half of them starting in the past 10 years.

The number of farms are too few to be included in statewide studies, but the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is counting the farms for the 2007 survey is heartening for those in the business.

The study estimates that these farms spent about $166 million over the past five years and anticipate another $27.6 million in spending for this year.

State Agriculture and Markets Department spokeswoman Jessica Chittenden said deer and elk farming is seen as a growing segment of niche farming in the state.

Deer and elk can be raised on land ill-suited for raising cows or crops — the animals don’t mind the woods or hilly lands so deer and elk ranching is seen as an opportunity.

“It’s not an overly large industry here in New York, but at the same time it’s one of those niche markets in agriculture that we are starting to see more and more of,” Chittenden said.

New York Deer & Elk Farmers Association President David Vanderzee said there is growth in the popularity of both deer and elk because the meats typically contain less fat and calories and provide more protein than beef.

“More than half our customers are people that like elk for its health benefits,” said Stacy Handy, a co-owner of the Creek’s Edge Elk Farm in the Montgomery County town of Minden.

The meat is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, Handy said. Other customers like the taste or want to try something different, she said.

Though it’s a growing venture, raising elk is best for people already familiar with farm animals, Handy said. Cows typically weigh about 700 pounds and bulls weigh about 1,200 pounds.

Creek’s Edge co-owner Susan Keith said there about six elk farmers in a 50-mile radius of their farm outside of Fort Plain, so there isn’t much competition like in the western and northern parts of New York.

The study of elk and deer farming estimates $5.4 million in direct sales for 2007 and, at the current growth, sales are projected to reach $11.6 million by 2012.

“What’s exciting is that New York ranks number six in all states in deer and elk kept,” Vanderzee said.

The farms on average maintain 282 acres of open space, he said.

Though Vanderzee believes elk and deer raising is in line for more growth, the association is concerned with a bill being reviewed in the state Assembly related to “canned hunts.”

The bill aims to remove acreage restrictions from the current law that prohibits farms from caging animals for the purpose of pleasure hunting, but its wording is causing concern, Vanderzee said.

Vanderzee, who owns Easton View Outfitters in Washington County, hosts hunting excursions for upland game birds, elk, wild boar and other animals on the 200-acre preserve.

Under the bill, farms that sell deer and elk meat would technically be prohibited from slaughtering the animals for processing because the federal government requires the animals be penned up for inspection prior to slaughter, Vanderzee said.

“We’re actively trying to block that because we already have a very effective canned hunting law in New York state,” Vanderzee said.

With the law enacted, Vanderzee said, “the farmers can’t harvest their animals. … They’re basically trying to legislate us out of business,” he said.

The bill, numbered A-2612, died in the state Senate last year but is being reviewed again, according to the state Legislature bill search Web site.

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