Suggesting to farmers that they raise deer is a little like asking the owner of a candy store to start an ant colony.
To most farmers, deer are an uninvited wild herd of 30 or 40 devouring cash crops. But a Taneytown farmer is hoping to persuade other farmers and state legislators that domesticated species of deer would make money, not eat it.
"They take a look at the wild deer here and think these are the same, but these animals, the way they're grouped up and treated is just the same as beef or dairy cattle would be," said Leonard Miller. "But the state of Maryland has so many daggone laws that make it so tough to get into anything."
Maryland is one of three states that prohibit deer farming.
Miller sees potential profit in this alternative farm product. With a growing market for venison among gourmet restaurants and stores, and health-conscious meat lovers who have to cut fat and cholesterol, he is hoping deer will give his farm a boost.
Well-established in the rest of the world, deer farming caught on in the United States in the 1970s, starting with two German farmers who began raising European species such as fallow and red deer. Baron Josef von Kerckerinck, one of the "founders" of deer farming, runs Lucky Star Estate in upstate New York, a ranch, game preserve and European-style lodge, as well as a deer farm.
"I'm the one who can be blamed for it being here," said von Kerckerinck. "I thought it would be a nice niche market for a lot of farmers to get into -- just a little moneymaker, a cash machine."
While he might have introduced Americans to farming deer for meat, he hardly can take credit for introducing venison, he said.
"Venison is the all-American meat," he said. "When white people came over here, there was nothing but venison for red meat here in this country. There were no cattle."
In 1978, he began buying fallow deer from U.S. zoos and game farms that had too many to start his farm. From the start, von Kerckerinck faced opposition from natural resources or agricultural officials, although he has won many of them over: Forty-four states allow deer farming. In three other states, the law is not as clear, according to the North American Deer Farmers Association.
But not Maryland, where Miller faces a public relations challenge if he wants support from the community of farmers.
Deer devoured an estimated $38 million worth of corn, wheat and soybeans that Maryland farmers planted and raised but never got to harvest in 1996, according to a survey by the University of Maryland. That didn't count damage to fruits and other vegetables.
But deer meat has found a niche among sophisticated diners.
Venison consumption up
Venison consumption in the United States has gone up 30 percent a year for the past five years, said Barbara Fox, executive director of the deer farmers association. More than 80 percent of that comes from New Zealand, the major exporter worldwide of venison.
Even the Milton Inn in Sparks gets its venison from New Zealand -- shipped fresh, said chef-partner Brian Boston. He serves it as one of the specials.
"I prepare it with a red currant and chestnut sauce, accompanied by some polenta porridge with black truffle oil, over some wilted mustard greens," Boston said.
The flavor is rich, but the fat content is low and protein high, he said.
Farmers can shoot wild deer in their fields, but federal regulations prohibit them from selling the meat because animals have to be slaughtered in inspected facilities to be sold.
Miller hopes domesticated deer could be the product that ensures his farm's viability into the next generation. He has three teen-age children.
"Someone said, 'Why don't you buy a farm up in Pennsylvania and raise deer there?' " Miller said. "But that would defeat the purpose."
He had hoped to get the Maryland Farm Bureau to include a proposal on deer in its agenda for this legislative session.
But last month, the Farm Bureau rejected the idea of asking the General Assembly to draft a law allowing farming of certain species of deer and elk. Their concern was over diseases these members of the cervid family can spread to livestock herds, such as cattle, said Emily Wilson, the Farm Bureau's assistant director of government relations.
"Nutria were introduced in Maryland with the premise they would be farmed," Wilson said. The orange-toothed rodents have since proliferated in the wild and have been destroying Chesapeake Bay marshes. The state is trying to eradicate them.
But Miller said deer can be managed and inoculated like any other farm animal. Unlike wild deer, the domesticated species stay close to each other, don't mind being penned and don't run off if they get out of the pen.
Deer farming is an ancient practice going back at least to King Solomon and to China in 3000 B.C., said von Kerckerinck.
The deer farmers association is based in Lanham so that it can be near Washington and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Maryland has resisted allowing deer farming, Fox said. It was only in the past few years that the association got a regulation allowing the sale of deer meat if it's raised and slaughtered elsewhere.
"There is just an enormous amount of folklore and history around deer farming," Fox said. "Robin Hood -- he didn't steal money from the rich and give it to the poor. He stole venison. He poached a deer out of the king's fence so that the poor could eat."
Working to educate public
Fox said her association has much work ahead to educate state agencies and the public. Deer are no more subject to disease than cattle or other animals, she said.
"We have exactly the same regulations for deer and elk as for cattle," she said. Even more -- deer are tested every two years for tuberculosis, compared with every three years for cattle.
"Where did deer get tuberculosis?" Fox said. "They didn't come over from Europe with it -- they got it from cattle. Poor management happens in every animal species. It is unfortunate."
Michael Slattery from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources worries about farmed deer introducing diseases to Maryland's wild white-tail deer, or escaping and establishing wild colonies that could throw off the ecological balance. White-tail deer are in overabundance, he said.
"I've talked to some of those states," he said of those that allow deer farming. "What we've been told by them is if you can keep it from happening, by all means keep it from happening."
Von Kerckerinck said the scare over diseases is fueled by rumor. Deer farmers, including experts from New Zealand, have contributed to controlling TB by refining the tests for deer and cattle.
"They don't know what they're talking about," he said. "Some of them should go back to school. The danger that the wild deer would spread diseases to the farmed deer is much larger than the other way around."
Miller raised dairy cattle, but over the past few years has sold his herd. Fluctuating milk prices and the labor-intensive nature of dairy farming convinced him it was not the thing that will ensure the farm for his children.
"That's what I'd like to do in the long run," said his son, Leonard Jr., 19, who goes by Lenny.
Lenny Miller works off the farm, going on trips as a hunting guide in Montana and in construction jobs when he's not out West.
He enjoys the guide work, but wants to return to the farm some day.
"It's more of a family life than guiding, but the way it's been milking cows, you can't really depend on it," he said.
Son met deer farmer
It was on a hunting trip two years ago that Lenny Miller met John Craig, a Maine farmer who raises deer. He came back to tell his father about it. The elder Miller ordered several deer from Craig, but as he looked into state regulations, learned he could be breaking the law if he penned the deer on his farm.
"I could have 40 of them here within 30 days if I wanted to," Leonard Miller said.
Craig, who has a farm near Ashland in northern Maine, said he has never had a problem with disease or deer escaping in the 10 years he has raised them.
"They're just like beef cattle, only smaller," he said. "We have annual vaccination for parasites. You follow the guidelines. What I like about it is the big return."
Craig said his deer meat is USDA-inspected and sold to distributors and to the public at a small store he runs on the farm.
"You can feed five deer for what it would cost to feed one cow," he said. "And if you look at the price, I get $5.50 a pound for ground meat, up to $10 a pound for steak. Now you compare that to beef."
Pub Date: 1/01/99