Friday, November 21, 2008


My favorite yak - a spirited wooly named Kunga - birthed a calf this morning between 9:00 am and 11:00 am.

Here's a look at the new rascal, as yet un-sexed and un-named.

Welcome little one, and big kudos, Kunga!

All but one cow - Delta Dawn - have now had calves this season.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

YAK TRACKS: Yakking with the Times-Argus Newspaper

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

A big YAK-TASTIC! to Times-Argus journalist Thatcher Moats and photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur for their in-depth article on our yakking efforts in today's Times-Argus.

Read the story here.

And our yaks really posed for Jeb - they were in fine form.

At Waitsfield farm, they're yakking up a storm
By Thatcher Moats Times Argus Staff
WAITSFIELD – Lucky, a three-week-old yak, has his name for a reason.

The black and white calf, one of the tiniest members of a 31-head yak herd that lives in the Mad River Valley, almost didn't make it through his first day.

"The calf was born in a big rainstorm, and I found him lying in the pasture all by himself barely breathing," said Dave Hartshorn, one of the owners of the Vermont Yak Company in Waitsfield.

Hartshorn, who for decades worked on his parents' dairy farm, put the young yak under hay, and also rubbed him with hay until he was warmed up, which brought him "back from the brink," Hartshorn said.

Another calf was not as fortunate.

Now Lucky is part of what is almost certainly the first yak herd ever to graze Vermont pastures.

The Vermont Yak Company began operating last March when its got its first yaks from Minnesota, and about six weeks later 10 more yaks came from Massachusetts.

Three families pitch in to make the operation work. There's the Williams family, the Hartshorn family and the Laskaris family, all of Waitsfield, and they raise the shaggy beasts for their meat on farmland just off Route 100 north of downtown Waitsfield. "It's three families, two farms and one vision," said Rob Williams, a professor at Champlain College and one of the owners.

The yaks are raised on land that Ted and Susan Laskaris own, but the land was once owned by Hartshorn's parents. Williams said the land was vacant for 20 years until the yak company started up. Abutting that farmland is a vegetable farm and maple sugaring operation that Hartshorn runs. The yaks roam on 18 acres of pasture and there are another 32 acres of land that is used for hay, said the owners.

There are a handful of reasons the families decided to raise yaks, but chief among them is that they make for a good meal, Williams said.

"The meat is what sold us on it," said Williams.

Williams' wife, Kate Williams, has family in Montana, and they have yaks that guard their sheep. While out there for a visit, Rob and Kate fell in love with the meat.

Williams described yak meat as "a rich, red, slightly sweet, herbaceous sort of meat."

The owners also said it's healthy – low in fat but high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

After the trip to Montana, the three families talked over beers about getting a herd of yaks together, and they decided to give it a shot, said Williams.

The owners sell most of their meat at the Waitsfield Farmers Market and have sold some to local restaurants, such as Hen of the Wood in Waterbury and Cooking From the Heart in Waitsfield.

They hope to eventually have a herd of 200 yaks.

In addition to the quality of the meat, putting the land back to use and being a part of the localvore movement are hugely important, Williams said.

"One of the most moving things for me is bringing this small piece of working landscape back to life. I get up every morning excited about it," he said.

The yak herd is an important complement to his vegetable and maple operation, said Hartshorn, who has used the yak manure as fertilizer.

"The full circle of a good farm is to have livestock," he said.

That "full circle" approach is part of the company's vision, as it focuses on engaging in a holistic style of farming.

"We see ourselves as part of that paradigm," said Williams. "This, we think, is a compelling way to do that."

Another example of this integrated approach can be found in the Vermont Yak maple sausage — the maple syrup in the sausage comes from Hartshorn's farm.

The shaggy beasts that hail from the vertiginous Himalayas are ideally suited to the Green Mountain State, according to Williams.

Yaks are sure-footed, used to the cold weather, and efficient – they eat half of what a normal beef cow eats, the owners said. Hot summer days don't seem to bother them too much, the owners said, nor does the lower elevation.

"They're the perfect Vermont bovine," Williams said. "They're small and feisty, just like Vermonters."

There has been demand for the yak fur, but Williams said they don't sell it yet simply because they aren't ready to deal with it.

However, the families are waiting on six yak hides that they salted and dried and sent away to get tanned, which they will try to sell.

Aside from all this, yaks make for good company, said Williams.

"I can't say this enough: Yaks are fun," he said.

Each of the yaks has a name and their own personalities to go with them.

There's a bull named Jet Black, the largest of the lot at 1,400 pounds. He's actually quite mellow because he "knows he's in charge," said Williams.

Then there's Margaret, who is cranky, and Christine, who is curious.

But Williams doesn't seem to forget why the company was created or the fate that awaits the yaks.

"We want to give them a good, humane, happy life – and then eat 'em!" he said with a chuckle.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

YAK TRACKS: Yakking with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture

We had a visit from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture last week.

Thanks to Steve Justis, Ed Jackson and Agriculture Secretary Roger Albee for visiting the farm.

"The yaks seem like great animals," Secretary Albee said. "It is good to see this farm in working operation again."

Six-year-old Theron seems to agree.

Here's a link to the Valley Reporter article.

Vermont's first and only yak business, Mad River Valley's Steadfast Farm, home of the Vermont Yak Company, received a visit from Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Albee last week on November 14. Albee arrived with fellow agency representatives Ed Jackson and Steve Justis.

"The yak is a wonderful animal -- cold-hearty, efficient as a grazer, adaptable, and versatile and is well-suited to Vermont's climate and topography but is little known in Vermont," explained Rob Williams. "So we invited the Department of Agriculture to our farm to learn a bit more about yaks, a bovine that is brand new to the Vermont working landscape."

Albee and his team were favorably impressed.

"The yaks seem like great animals," Albee noted. "And it is good to see what you are doing to bring the farm and the land back to life here."

Raising yaks on a diet of organic grass and supporting a Localvore philosophy of selling to consumers and restaurants within a 100-mile radius, the Vermont Yak Company has had a successful first summer and harvest season. The three-family, two-farm business bought an initial 24 animals from Cold Spring, Minnesota, in April, and then expanded the herd with the purchase of 10 more animals from Tregelly's farm in Massachusetts.

Six calves have been born, three animals sold as bottle-fed babies, and six animals have been "retired" for high protein and low fat meat, sold to neighbors and local restaurants, including American Flatbread, the Round Barn, the Green Cup, and Hen of the Wood.

"We feel very fortunate to have received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the taste and the quality of the meat," explained Susan Laskaris. "We feel it a privilege to provide local meat to our neighbors here in central Vermont and look forward to expanding our operations next spring once we weather the winter months."

Vermont Yak Company is also in the process of training two bottle-fed yaks born at the farm -- six-month-old Tashi and five-month-old Natasha -- to be friendlier with people.

"Our hope is to train these animals to serve as pack and plow animals," observed co-owner Kate Williams. "And daily contact with a wide range of people is vital to that training process."

The owners hope that both animals will serve as "yak ambassadors" of sorts, allowing neighbors and visitors to learn more about yaks over the next several years.

"Natasha lived like a yak queen this summer and fall," said co-owner Dave Hartshorn, who runs the adjacent organic farmstand on Route 100 where Natasha spent her days.

"Fresh grass and water all day long, with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits thrown into the mix, and a steady supply of visitors from both in and out of The Valley. She was a wonderful addition to the farmstand," he said.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

YAK TRACKS: The Yak Poop Flinging Contest (First Ever!)

We had a blast today with a group of UVM students who dropped by the farm to give us some help, meet the yaks, and purchase some meat.

We ended up shoveling yak poop and cleaning up the main pasture for an hour or so, and then engaged in what will no doubt become one of our most important yak farm rituals of the new millennium.

Yak Poop Flinging. A contest, even.

Here's some yak poop:

And here's a video of the flinging contest. Sam won a free pound of Vermont Maple yak sausage with his remarkable fling.

Must be something in the water in Oregon, his home state.

Take a look: