Red Deer in New Limerick are worth a visit!
The snow line and its backdrop of woods looked empty at first glance. The land sloped gently away from my view, and the open farmland seemed asleep in the early winter white. But wait, was that movement? Brown dots seem to move form the woods to the snow line and up the slope towards my crowd. The dots started with a few, and then became many - DEER!
Gary Dwyer and Mark Drew nod in acknowledgment as to the animals approaching. Mark swishes a large bucket of grain and in a flash there was a rapid increase in the animals' approach. In a few moments we are surrounded by well over one hundred deer, a special red deer that brought a "new crop" to northern Maine's economic base.
This group enjoyed the grain Mark poured into a trough. Their closeness makes it easy to notice the nubs on their heads where the antlers had grown and been harvested just recently. These deer were not raised for meat or sport, but rather for the velvet sought by markets outside the U.S. as a "health food."
"We're breeding for bigger stags and bigger antlers," notes Gary. "We also sell top quality females to farmers for breeding stock."
Shakares Red Deer Farm, once a potato farm and now almost all its 150 acres devoted to raising red deer, is making a strong statement in the reuse of land for new ventures.
Gary extends his had and a deer gingerly approaches. Noticing he doesn't offer any grain, the deer turns to the trough. We're surrounded here, but neither group exhibits any fear. The deer are comfortable with their human handlers and visitors, and the people pose no threat to them.
Just a few months ago, the velvet portion of the antler growth - which is before the antlers calcify - has produced up to $240 a pound on the market.
"Deer reach their peak antler growth at ages six, seven and eight for prime velvet," says Gary. The antlers will grow at about one inch per day, reaching full size in 60 days. The blood-rich new antler growth has its richest velvet harvest just three to four days before the antlers are past harvest.
As with dairy farming and removing cows' horns, the antlers are taken off without any real stress to the animals. They are tunneled into runs such as are used for sheep shearing, and immobilized while the antlers are removed. A clotting agent is applied to the stub, and the deer recover quickly to return to their pasture.
Managing well over 400 deer has brought the business to profitability, while presenting its own growth problems. For Mark, the farm manager, it's a never-ending vigil to look after the deer, see to their inoculations, give visitor tours, to the harvesting and oversee the breeding and feeding of the entire herd.
"The name 'shakaree' comes from the Star Wars film, meaning paradise," explains Gary, who moved his herd to the larger farm this past May.
He and Mark had recently gotten through 22 embryo transplants and 30 artificial inseminations to help bring the bigger bloodlines, animal size and antler quality.
In Maine, the pair have a first in bringing this type of product management to an area that was agricultural. Gary sees his business as one that shows the way for new ideas to bring dollars to the Aroostook County economic base.
"Deer management is very big in New Zealand," he say, "but it's been noted that the deer are faring better with this weather we have. For centuries Russia was the top place to have these deer herds and I see Maine as one of the best places, too."
A red deer can bark like a dog...roar like a lion...wallow like a pig in the mud and offer a variety of uses. Though hunting farms are not legal in Maine, raising deer for food or other products has been tried in several areas.
With Gary's herd nearing the 500 mark, he will be realizing the viability of raising animals for their velvet. Much like the harvesting of sea urchins along the Maine coast, the velvet finds a special market in a new industry here.
Grain and hay are brought locally to feed the animals, as are other basic supplies. An unexpected steady stream of visitors, including bus tours, has also put it on the tourist circuit.
Mark, a graduate of the University of Maine, with a background in forestry and wildlife management, is able to present the business well to visitors in addition to onsite management.
Gary, who is involved primarily with DuBois Paper Technologies in the sale of special products for the paper industry, gives the day-to-day work to Mark while handling the paperwork and business end.
"This is a new way of thinking about livestock," affirms Gary.
"Such business ideas are just starting to catch on. In New Hampshire this farm would come under fish and game, but here we're agricultural."
Back at the barn, Gary and Mark explain the harvest process and the dollar market. Outside, the red deer await the next velvet season while enjoying the grain left from the day's visitors.