Untapped venison market

West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt may sound as though he is stating the obvious as he suggests an untapped agricultural opportunity in the Mountain State — deer meat. Sorry … “venison.” And it’s not exactly untapped so much as insufficiently tapped. Leonhardt notes there are “25 licenses for captive cervid producers” in the state.

What’s a cervid? Elk, fallow, red deer and white-tail deer. You know, those things West Virginia has so many of they keep the auto body shops in business. There is so much demand for their meat in the United States that we are having to import it … from places like New Zealand. How many hunters are shaking their heads right now?

Leonhardt explains the appeal — venison is a relatively healthy meat, lower in fat and cholesterol, high in vitamins, etc. But he left out one of the most important reasons demand for venison is booming. It’s trendy. Hipster who have not gone vegetarian or vegan love it. Chefs toss the word “venison” onto their farm-to-table menus and people can’t get enough.

Big city restaurants also MAY be getting away with using the meat as a substitute for other menu items, without telling the customers. I was eating at a “steak house” in New York City with a friend once who ordered what the menu labeled as a beef steak. He took one bite and said “This is deer. I’m from West Virginia; you can’t fool me with this.” The waiter did not deny it, but simply turned and walked away.

And — I’ve probably mentioned this before — but during my time in an NYC newsroom, if I told my co-workers I had deer jerky from home, they were grossed out. If I told them I had “cured venison,” they were all over it. That’s the kind of backward logic West Virginians can turn into a profit. And Leonhardt is right, we should.

In an item on the WVDA’s website Oct. 30, Leonhardt said “With how often the average West Virginian interacts with deer, it is hard to believe we have to import these products at all!”

Captive cervid producers can find other sources of revenue on their land, too — tourist hunters, and the use of hundreds of acres that are no good for traditional agriculture to produce not only the animals, but traditional crafts and furniture from the woods.

This is not a massive save-the-state-budget kind of money-maker. But it could be an example of the kind of creative thinking and willingness to acknowledge and utilize our resources beyond coal that will propel our economy through its improvement and transition. We don’t think about this kind of thing because, to us, deer meat is just another part of life, maybe even the thing that sustained some families through winters where the last thing on their minds was whether an executive from Boston might pay money to go hunting with them.

Well, the things that are just everyday life to us are exotic, trendy — worth paying a lot of money for — to others. And, as was the case with cervid farms, it may take a little tweaking of state law to make some of them profitable. (I get the impression our craft brewers, distilleries and wineries would agree with me, by the way.)

Don’t overlook the treasures we have right in front of us, folks.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com