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.

No comments: