West Virginia is known as the Mountain State. Flat, farmable land is hard to find. However, a new agriculture industry is cropping up.
“This is the perfect place to farm deer,” said Mark Cobb, owner of Gobblers Ridge Exotics in Jackson County and president of the West Virginia Deer Farmers Association (WVDFA).
If you have land where cattle can’t graze, crops won’t grow or you can’t build anything, Cobb stressed deer farming is a perfect option.
“I started with red deer and axis deer,” said Cobb. “There’s no better way to understand them than to have them and care for them.”
Over the years, Cobb has expanded his farm. He currently owns a breeding pair of elk and female whitetail deer. He’s watched the industry evolve. In 2000, when Cobb purchased his first deer, captive cervid farms were controlled by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR).
“All you really needed back then was a game farm license. That all changed when Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was discovered in Hampshire County in the wild deer population,” he explained.
CWD is a contagious, neurological disease in deer that causes degeneration of the brain. Over time, deer suffering from CWD become emaciated, start acting differently and eventually die.
In West Virginia, it’s only been detected in the wild whitetail population. However, new regulations were put into place for captive cervid operations, including increasing the height requirement for fencing. It also became much more difficult to get a license, and deer were no longer allowed to be imported.
In 2015, the West Virginia Legislature passed a law giving the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) control and regulation of the captive cervid industry.
“I really felt like it belonged under the WVDA because deer are an agricultural product,” stressed Larry Williams, the Captive Cervid Specialist with the WVDA.
The department now oversees captive cervid farms, preserves and the venison, or deer meat, industry. Since the transition, the number of deer farms in the Mountain State has started to grow again.
“The future of deer farming in West Virginia has never looked brighter,” Cobb said.
To start a farm, there is still a licensing process. Potential farmers must submit an application to the WVDA, explain how they’re going to run their farm and what protective measures they plan to take to keep their deer safe. The WVDA conducts fence inspections to make sure the enclosure is tall enough to keep captive cervids in and wild deer out.
Another reason deer farming is starting to pick up is the popularity of venison. However, more than 90 percent of venison currently consumed in restaurants in the United States is imported from New Zealand.
“With how often the average West Virginian interacts with deer, it is hard to believe we import these products at all,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt.
Therein lies the rub. Until a couple years ago, venison coming from West Virginia farms couldn’t be sold. In fact, most states still have similar restrictions on their books. However, when the WVDA took over deer farming, those rules changed. Venison raised on captive cervid farms within the state and processed following WVDA guidelines, including inspections, can now be purchased.
Venison does not come cheap. Steve Toth, owner of Toth Whitetails in Philippi, said selling the meat is a great way for deer farmers to make money.
“In Pennsylvania, farmers are getting an average of $8 for a burger made with venison, and a steak is $25 off of the farm,” Toth stressed.
That adds up to big money for farmers like Cobb. Not only does he have the deer farm, he and his family opened Safari Meats in Ravenswood, a venison processing facility that makes venison products like hot dogs and trail bologna.
“My wife and I are so busy with the venison business, we are having a difficult time keeping up,” Cobb said. “Venison is the easiest thing to sell. We ship our products all over the United States.”
And in some cases, across the border. A meat distribution company in Mexico wants to purchase 1,500 lbs. of venison every other month from Safari. The Cobbs are currently working with the Mexican government on the importation process.
The Cobb’s venison can be found in shops around the state; they also have an online shop, safarimeatsllc.com.
Meanwhile Toth is creating a different kind of product on his cervid farm.
“I sell the estres, or deer urine,” explained Toth, who has been farming deer for almost a decade. “For three weeks during the rut, I sold 350 bottles to hunters in my area for $20 an ounce.”
Toth, Cobb and Williams would like to see deer farming grow in West Virginia. Cobb said the state has the chance to be a major player in the captive cervid industry, if enough people buy in.
“You can definitely make it a full-time job,” Cobb added.