When I ask people why they choose to pursue deer each fall, there are always a variety of replies. Some even struggle with the answer because hunting has become so ingrained in their lifestyle. However, a common theme across responses is “for the meat.” When it comes to speaking with those outside the hunting community, sometimes we get lost in the traditions and trophies and fail to communicate the satisfaction of putting food on our tables.
There is a large cultural shift in progress, and people are more conscious about the food they are consuming. Organic is by far the fastest growing segment of the food industry, supermarket chains like Whole Foods Market are gaining unprecedented popularity, and farm-to-table restaurants have become the place to be. These trends are being driven by “locavores” who want a deeper understanding of where their food comes from, and they prefer it to be locally sourced.
What locavores usually do not realize is that every American possesses the opportunity to obtain some of the healthiest red meat known to man. Fair-chase venison is the original free-range, additive-free meat, and it comes from an animal that lived its life free from animal welfare concerns. How are we not doing a better job of marketing this? Well, we are working on that.
Hank Forester, QDMA’s Hunting Heritage Programs Manager, and I decided to take on the challenge of introducing locavores to the benefits of hunting for food in QDMA’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. We put our heads together, did a little research, based our program on an example from Kentucky created by QDMA and the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, and the Athens Field to Fork program was born. It’s a joint effort between QDMA, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division.
Hank and I set up a booth at the local farmer’s market. We offered an impressive spread of samples of venison sausage, sliced backstrap with chimichurri sauce, venison jerky, and a handout entitled “Why should you hunt deer?” The reception was overwhelming. Everyone was curious, most tried venison, and quite a few signed up to go hunting with us. In a matter of six hours, we reached program capacity with a substantial waiting list. We ended up with a diverse group of participants ages 18 to 47 who all shared a common desire to have a connection with the food on their plate.
The training sessions came first. We held these on weekday evenings and learned a little more about why everyone was there – while enjoying venison tacos. In the classroom, we covered how hunting has played a vital role in conservation historically and present day, an overview of deer biology, and crossbow safety. Crossbows were chosen to introduce this audience to the outdoors, because this allowed us to access local suburban properties, and for some locavores archery is initially more palatable than firearms. For the field component of training, we discussed hunting strategies and provided ample shooting opportunity on the range and from simulated stands.
Our guide selection process was an important one. We needed open-minded guides who shared a passion for locally sourced food with our target audience. The University of Georgia’s Deer Lab students fit the bill perfectly! Hunting commenced when archery season opened in September.
On the afternoon of September 17, the guide/participant pairs departed for their respective stand locations. No bolts were released that first weekend, but there were quite a few sightings. We have been offering additional hunting opportunities since the initial hunt weekend and, so far, have had three successful harvests.
The first was Evan Stout, an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. Evan and I were in a double hang-on set nestled amongst cedar limbs when we spotted two does and a fawn. We watched them move through, out of range, and I was sure we had missed our chance when Evan said, “Be quiet, one is coming back.” Sure enough, the bigger doe was headed right for our best shooting lane. I bleated to stop her once she cleared the brush, and before I could say anything else Evan had doubled-lunged her at 35 yards. The blood trail was short, and Evan got his first field-dressing lesson!
To cap off the Field to Fork program, we hosted a culinary social at QDMA Headquarters with the participants, guides, and representatives from the partnering organizations. We had a variety of venison dishes and even grilled a backstrap from Evan’s first deer. There were some excellent hunting stories told, and everyone gave their input on their experience in the program. A common response from participants when asked what they enjoyed about hunting was the meditative component of spending quiet time in the woods. This experience was equally rewarding for me, as it was inspiring to see there is interest in hunting across other segments of society. They just need a welcoming hand to get started in what can definitely be an intimidating activity.
The rural traditions, values, and beliefs that have long formed the foundation of hunting in America are shifting. If we as hunters do not shift with them, if we do not welcome people who are interested in hunting but think differently or come from different backgrounds than us, we will be left behind. If you live in an area where farmer’s markets are popular, farm-to-table restaurants are plentiful, and you are interested in replicating Field to Fork, please contact Hank Forester.
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