Judy Gergen grew up on a dairy farm in Hampton, Iowa. For a while, she and her husband lived right here in Minnesota- she raised twelve hundred baby pigs at a nursery and he worked for a corn seed company. But when Larry’s job relocated them to Iowa, she had to sell the baby pig nursery, and look for something new. Following the move, they had an acreage that was just big enough for their two horses. Judy knew that she eventually wanted to get back to livestock farming but couldn’t decide on which animal she wanted to raise. In a twist of fate, the man who they bought the high tensile horse fencing from also happened to raise Red Deer. Judy recalls seeing the deer, and wondering why anyone would bother farming an animal which was already so plentiful as highway road kill. But the man gave them a sample of his homemade summer sausage, and also a bit of back-story on this particular species.
As it turns out, Red Deer isn’t even related to the white tail deer most common in the United States. The Red Deer is actually at the top of the Elk Species. They are an old world deer, indigenous to the deep forests of Western Europe where they are also known as Red Elk, or if you like names with dramatic flair: “the Monarch of the Mountain.” Whatever the name, they have been highly sought after game throughout the centuries (think of the stags depicted in jewel tone medieval art), and were often served as a delicacy for members of the noble elite. In fact, even today the British Royal Family keeps a herd of Red Deer for sport.
Red deer came to the United States by way of New Zealand in the 1950s. They were imported from the Black Forest of Germany in order to diversify the game population of New Zealand. By the 1970s, Red Deer had overpopulated the island nation. In a desperate attempt to save their civilians from increasingly common car accidents, the government heavily subsidized farmers to bring Red Deer into the fold as a livestock breed. With a bit of clever marketing, (New Zealand trademarked the name “Cervena” to describe Venison from Red Deer) demand from the international market exploded. To this day, roughly 10% of New Zealand’s total Cervena output is exported to restaurants in the US, and 70% is sent to Chefs in Europe. In the late eighties, the FDA allowed the importation of a few hundred Red Deer to the US. It took nearly a year of quarantining the deer between Zealand and Canada before they finally set foot on American soil.
Back to Judy and her fence supplier – It was 1997 and after tasting the venison (her husband said that summer sausage could make anything good, and insisted on trying a venison steak) and learning about their rich history, they agreed that their tiny plot of acreage could support ten deer. But when they proposed the purchase to the seller, he said that he would give them a much better price if they agreed to take all 27 bred females. That spring, their deer had 27 new calves – and the Gergens were out of land. The land next to them had been in CRP Government program for 10 years, untouched by chemicals, they bought the land, and then another. What started off as a hobby turned out to be a great business decision for both the Gergens and their fence supplier. Today they have one 150 acres of (fenced) land, the alfalfa and pastures are organic. Of their 387 deer, they process one hundred and fifty every year, and every spring they plan for 150 baby calves. Judy says that they work best in increments of 150.
Red deer are smaller than their cousins, the North American Elk. Because of their diminutive stature, Red Deer put on muscle much faster than their native cousins and they can be fully mature and ready for processing at fifteen months. The resulting meat is much tenderer than other elk meat, and exponentially less gamey and gristly than venison from white tail deer. Whereas Cervena from New Zealand has to be broken down and packaged within 24 hours of slaughter, Judy insists on hanging the meat for a minimum of one to two weeks. It used to be that all meat was hung to dry age, but today when industrial slaughterhouses are processing thousands of animals a day, they just don’t have the time or space to properly hang the meat. Judy insists that when meat is immediately packaged, the meat gets aged in its own blood, giving it a metallic off-flavor.
In talking to Judy you get the sense that she has a real passion for animal husbandry. She knows each of her animals, and because of this, processing days are never met without a lot of tears. She says that she hates to see the females go, “but the stags are like teenage boys, so… you know, not so many tears.” In the U.S. our tax payer dollars pay for the USDA to inspect our standard issue livestock. But deer are an “exotic species,” so the Gergens have to pay hourly for a USDA inspector to come inspect every one of their deer. Their product is labeled “USDA All-Natural,” which means that the animals are raised without antibiotics, hormones, dyes, preservatives, any added ingredients, and minimally processed. An average stag carcass will weigh 175 to 200 after it has been fully processed and hung. The deer have been a bit smaller this season owing to the drought that has plagued Iowan farmers this year.
Chefs who have tried the Red Deer venison say that it’s the best venison they have ever tasted. The venison steaks coming from the top round are so tender they don’t need a whole lot of the preparation or marinating that comes with preparing venison from white tailed deer. Because most of us picture round as a tough cut of meat that has to be slowly braised or broken down, Judy hates it when it her product gets labeled “round steak.” She says that its best cooked medium rare, and allowed to rest for a few minutes. With this simple preparation, people have been known to mistake her top round steaks for fillet. Many chefs prefer the Denver leg. This is a whole hind leg that has completely deboned and stripped of the fat and connective tissue. The five muscles are all in one package, from which you get the medallions, steaks, and some leftover meat for soups or charcuterie.
If you have an upcoming dinner for the noble elite, or if you just have customers who would appreciate tasty, fresh, locally grown venison, give us a call! We are happy to talk about pricing, which cuts are available to order, and what we currently have in stock.