Local Elk Farm weathers flooding
MINDEN – It takes a certain blend of optimism, work ethic and resolve to be a farmer. Just ask Sue Keith. She and her husband, Joe, both grew up on dairy farms and continued the tradition with their own children. Once they had about 100 cows on their dairy farm about 15 miles north of Cooperstown on Route 80. Now it’s just the two of them -and about half of the cow herd they once had – living on the farm that spans about 400 acres.
“If we were easily swayed in one direction or the other, we certainly wouldn’t be farmers,” Sue Keith said. “Farming is a tough business, and you’re always at the mercy of the weather.”
That was true the morning of June 28 when rushing waters from the Otsquago Creek that usually ripples calmly through the property overtook areas of a pasture used for an elk farm operated by Keith and her daughter, Stacy Handy.
Named Creek’s Edge Elk Farm, the mother-daughter team has a herd including one bull with towering antlers, about a dozen females, called cows, a few yearling bulls with budding antlers and two babies – one with white spots.
Keith said when they started raising elk in 2004 at Creek’s Edge, the pasture never flooded. Then, in 2006, the pasture flooded and waters rose. Since then she’s been cautious when it rains.
“After that you’re always gun shy and watching the weather, so we started moving the animals at the slightest hint of rain. They’re accustomed to being moved,” Keith said. “Being proactive [on June 27] I moved the elk, but left two babies [in a lower pasture] because they don’t follow their mothers at a young age. Calves are born with a hiding instinct, and when they get frightened, they just hide. If the water came up in the pasture, I knew there would still be plenty of high ground so I left the bull down there, too.”
At 4:30 a.m. the day of the flash flooding in Fort Plain, Keith went outside with binoculars to check on the elk.
The rushing water had risen about 600 feet from its creek bed. Keith said it was like a river the size of the Mohawk was rushing through their property.
“It was still raining, but not hard. I looked down and the pastures were completely under water. Only one pasture was dry, but not very dry and some parts were under two or three feet of water – more in some places,” Keith said.
She walked down through the water and found so much debris washed up to the gates they wouldn’t open, so she climbed the 8-foot wire fence and cut a hole in it to let elk out to higher ground.
One baby elk was caught in the current and swept away, but the rest survived unharmed. The other baby ran away, but to Keith’s relief it showed up the next day.
Reaching down into the water, she finished cutting the fence and the female elk came through. In a chaotic scene a whitetail deer came bounding through the water but seemed to ignore the elk.
The bull was more reticent to go through the cut fence, Keith said, but eventually he waded through chest-deep water and came out.
The water receded by 10 a.m., but it left in its wake flattened fences, debris, rocks, sand and trees.
“If any good can be gleaned from devastations such as this flooding, it would be the outpouring of the community togetherness,” Handy said in a message to The Leader-Herald. “It is heartwarming to drive though areas affected and see neighbors helping neighbors and complete strangers showing up to offer their help in the cleanup and rebuilding.”
Handy said Creek’s Edge received several “thoughtful offers of help from friends and customers.”
The farm lost about 2,000 feet of fence, and that costs about $3,000. To replace many of the 12-foot wooden posts will cost $500. Several pieces of equipment and little things were also washed away, Keith said – plus the cost of lost land, which she wasn’t sure how to tabulate.
She said they may have enough fence to rebuild, but they’ll definitely need to buy posts.
It picked up an entire hedge row of trees and deposited them in one of the fields. Instead of farmland, one field looks more like a beach with sand and rocks, Keith said.
“There are places where the water swirled and made sink holes in the ground, but that field luckily was not planted yet,” Keith said.
Another part of the land washed away.
Instead of 30 acres to graze, the elk now have 10 acres.
“When we get the new fence up, they’ll probably have 30 acres again,” Keith said.
Still, there’s much to be thankful for, Keith said.
“Normally, we’d have two elk bulls at the same time, but one of them died in the fall. If we had two, that could have been a real problem,” Keith said. “Normally, we don’t put seeding in that field [where the elk are now], but, this year we seeded it down so it’s terrific pasture.”
Also, one of the elk cows birthed a calf the day after the flooding. Keith said they never see the babies until about 10 days after they’re born, and about 10 days after the flood, a spotted tiny elk emerged.
If the elk’s mother had calved the day of the flood, the baby probably would have been lost, Keith said.
“So I guess things could always be worse. We didn’t lose our house. We didn’t have water rushing through our house,” Keith said.
Keith said she applied for assistance -insurance won’t cover anything – but is waiting to hear whether the farm will get any help.
In the meantime, the family will be rebuilding the fence and relocating a large pole barn from the lower pasture uphill.
The elk are wild; they don’t live in the barn, but it will be needed in the fall.
That’s when the elk must be caught and wormed. The male also needs his antlers cut at that time.
Otherwise, Keith said elk farming is a relatively low-maintenance business.
“They get fed once a day. Other than that, they don’t need anything. The hardest thing for them is the hot weather, the sun and the flies. In the summer, they spend most of their time lying in the shade. In the winter, they have hollow fur like a polar bear. They bed down in the snow,” Keith said.
Wild elk herds are located in places like Colorado and Oklahoma, she said and there is one in northwestern Pennsylvania. North Carolina also reintroduced a wild herd.
The meat seems to be gaining popularity as people become more health conscious. It’s a red meat, but it’s lean and doesn’t have the gamey taste that venison sometimes has.
“A lot of people who have heart problems or just want to eat healthy [like it]. Although it’s a red meat, it’s very low in cholesterol, low in fat and very high in protein,” Keith said.
She said it’s also tender.
“We haven’t found a cut of meat to be tough – even a London broil,” Keith said. “The only thing is, don’t overcook it.”
When it comes time to butcher the meat, her son-in-law shoots them and they’re taken by truck to a butcher near Binghamton who is well known for work with elk. Before the elk is shot, a veterinarian looks over the animal as required by agriculture and markets law.
The meat is sold at the farmers’ market in Colonie at the Crossings, in the winter at Empire Plaza and at the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market in Gloversville.
Keith said Christmas marks a busy season for the farm as they ship directly to customers in Styrofoam and dry ice.
Handy also started a local FarmieMarket website, which is basically an online farmers’ market where several local farms, including Creek’s Edge, can sell their goods online. Orders are delivered to customers’ doors.
On Thursday, Jill Gies stopped by the store on the property to pick up a few snack sticks – like a jerky stick.
“My whole family loves them,” said Gies, who owns Neppa Hatchery – a chicken hatchery – with her family in Fort Plain.
“I like it because it’s very local,” Gies said of the elk meat. “It’s different, too. You can’t just go out and find it anywhere.”
She enjoys the taste and health benefits of elk meat, but more importantly she emphasized how crucial it is that farmers patronize other farming businesses in their local area.
“We try to eat natural pastured meats,” Gies said. “It’s important for farmers to support other farmers.”
Creek’s Edge also sells the meat through Crum Creek CSA, a collaborative effort of a few small family farms that work together to offer a wide selection of locally raised, high-quality healthy meats, according to the website, www.creeksedgeelkfarm.com.
The business also sells leather hides, which are treated at Simco Leather in Johnstown. The store on the property at 894 Route 80 sells meat, snack sticks, and leather goods like bags, gloves and moccasins made from the Elk hide.
“There’s a bigger demand for the whole hide. We sell that by the square foot. There’s always someone doing reenactments or wanting to make their own jacket or something like that,” Keith said.
She and her daughter spent a few years researching the business before they started the farm, and the venture came at an exciting time as Handy also was planning her wedding.
“I tasted the meat at a cookout,” Keith said, and that’s how the idea was born.
With a total investment of about $40,000, they started the farm after buying elk from a farm in Buffalo, and adding more from a friend in Roseboom, Otsego County.
The mother-daughter team made a return on their investment in a couple years, but most importantly they’ve enjoyed working together as a family on it, Keith said.
Because the cost of metal has increased, the cost of fencing has also gone up. Keith estimated it would take about a $60,000 investment now.
“It [farming] is a nice life. It’s got its hardships, but I would hate to do the same thing over and over every day. I get to see the sun come up and go down every day, even though I’m usually working before and after,” Keith said with a laugh.