Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Look Inside Bonnie Brae Deer Farm

by Sheila Oranch

It is fawn season at Bonnie Brae and I am greeted by a green Totem Pole and a well-kept vintage barn. Postcard companies would pay for pictures of this front yard. Bonnie Brae Farms is a classic New England farmscape, maintaining a beachhead against all kinds of commercial development along busy Route 3 between Plymouth and Ashland.

The heart of the story here is about sustainable agriculture, preserving open space, diversifying food sources and good, old fashioned, New Hampshire independence. Two brothers, Henry and Bruce Ahern, established Bonnie Brae Farms to revitalize the family farm and to establish an enterprise that will support them when they retire. Although Henry Ahern and Cindy Downing run the farm, Bruce joins them for special projects. Henry and Bruce both have other careers – Henry is an authorized Apple Computer dealer and technician and operates HDA Technical Services. Deer farming enables them to maintain those activities while building for the future in a way that keeps them close to the land they love. Now that the major infrastructure is installed (watering systems, paddocks, handling shed and lots of fencing), caring for the herds only takes a couple of hours a day most of the year. It’s a walk in the park, actually.

I am treated to a tour of the deer farm by Henry, complete with seeing the new fawns close up. Red Deer are beautiful animals with winsome faces and varied personalities. Larger than Whitetail Deer (actually a branch of the Elk family), they are gentler and less skittish. The yearlings are separated from the breeding hinds (females) and their fawns as well as the big stags. The young animals are curious and greedy for a treat. Henry handles them like a flock of geese and they show no fear of him. He works with all the herds every day to keep them cooperative.

The impressive stags can grow up to 550 lbs. Henry took me into their paddock and it was a slightly intimidating experience. Some have earned names like Hercules. One character, Garibaldi, seems to crave Henry’s attention. He is not the biggest stag, but he certainly makes himself known. Generally, the stags are respectful of their handler, but he says during the roar (breeding season) they can be aggressive. The stags are competitive and have huge antlers.

You may already know the difference between a horn and an antler, but just in case you don’t, animals that have antlers, like these red deer, lose them annually. An animal with horns, a cow for example, does not lose its horns. For Bonnie Brae farm, these antlers are a profitable product of deer farming. They are an important part of natural nutritional, medical and fertility treatments and a real renewable resource, as they grow back each year. A healthy stag can live for up to 20 years, and the antler growth peaks at 10-12 years!

Venison, which is the first product that comes to mind for a deer farm, is a tasty, nutritious, lean meat. By culling the herds of surplus males, and females who don’t have the right personalities, the stock improves at the same time that a locally grown food is made available. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of FDA-approved slaughter facilities. The animals may have to be trucked 100 miles to be processed. Yet New England does not have quite enough demand to open a new facility. Henry has some creative ideas to solve that issue, but the plan is still in development.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Brae Farms sports a great big walk-in freezer from which they will sell you venison in many forms. I couldn’t resist taking home some beautiful, lean burger patties. Yum!
“Bonnie Brae” means “beautiful hillside” in Scottish. Red Deer are native to Scotland, England, Wales, Northern and Central Europe, and Yugoslavia. Is it a coincidence that these lovely hillside pastures support herds of these gentle Scottish cousins of the giant elk?

Just past the Bridgewater Power wood to energy facility. State regulations prohibit the public from touring the farm as you might tour a dairy farm like Bonnie Brae’s bovine cousin Longview Farm on the other side of town, but the deer can be viewed from Rte 3 as well as from the area around the parking for Bonnie Brae.

Bonnie Brae Farms
601 Daniel Webster Highway
Plymouth, NH 03264-4314
Phone (603) 536-3880
Fax (603) 536-2649

Smith Bridge, Plymouth, NH: Order cards, prints

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