One lesson Bob Root has learned about elk farming in 20 years:
“Don’t trust them. Don’t trust them,” he said, then laughed. “It hurts.”
Elk are wild. Large — 500 to 700 pounds. And unpredictable.
“The calves and cows will kick you. The bulls will gore you with their antlers,” he said.
“Keep your eyes open,” said Beverly Root, Bob’s wife.
The Berkshire couple and their son, Joe, own Mariah Elk Farm in Blodgett Mills, selling elk meat to area restaurants and individuals. The couple are regulars Saturdays at the Regional Farmers Market in Syracuse.
The Roots sell breeding stock to other farmers and bulls to hunting operations. They sell elk felt from Minnesota to relieve arthritis.
The Roots started raising elk in 2000 after establishing their 164-acre farm in 1999. Fifty-five acres are used for their elk.
A herd of 82 is spread out in 15 paddocks. The Rocky Mountain elk stay outside year round, thriving in the elements, Bob Root said.
“From my understanding, there are no other elk farms in Cortland County,” said Rebecca Ireland-Perry, a 4-H educator at Cortland Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. “He’s the only one I have heard of.”
In fact, Mariah Elk Farm is one of few elk meat producers in New York, Bev Root said.
Joe Root, who works in the restaurant business, lives on the farm, which has been in Beverly Ryan Root’s family for five generations.
“Bev did a dairy farm with her folks. I did it with my folks,” said Bob.
Bev Root worked at NYSEG in Ithaca for 41 1/2 years. Bob worked at Everson Power Transmission for 37 1/2.
Bob Root learned to care for the animals by trial and error. His wife said their agricultural background laid the groundwork.
They must have 8-foot-high fences to pen in the animals. Maintaining them on the windy hill is a key chore.
They also raise their own hay, which supplements the elks’ diet of alfalfa, wheat, oats, soy and soy bean hulls.
“We started out with a breeding bull, four cows and four calves,” Bob Root said.
They bred their elk from there, as well as buying elk from six other farms through the years from farmers who became overwhelmed by the job or moved.
Brenda Hartkopf, office manager and publications staffer at North American Elk Breeders Association in Minnesota, said there are a number of markets unique for the elk farmer. Not only selling breeding stock, meat and velvet antler, but selling hard antler for artwork, furniture or dog chews and selling trophy bulls and eye teeth that are ivories.
“The meat is amazingly delicious, while also being low in fat,” she said. “And they are an absolutely beautiful animal to watch out your window.”
The Roots sell elk velvet, a substance from elk antlers that is said to relieve arthritis, heal cartilage and provide joint lubrication. It’s processed from a farm in Minnesota.
“I take it every day,” Bob Root said. “The stuff works,” he said. Asian countries buy 70 percent of it from U.S. farmers.
“Elk is exotic food,” said Beverly Root. People will have it on their birthday or on a holiday. “Elk to me is very filling. It’s very healthy.”
A pound of ground elk costs $10 to $14, said Bob Root. “We sell it for $10.50,” his wife said.
They have four restaurants and 10 steady individual customers and 30 occasional customers.
Hartkopf said one of the challenges is “government over-regulation.”
The industry has tight controls by state Department of Agriculture and Markets and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Roots must test the animals for tuberculosis every three years. And the animals are tested for chronic wasting disease.
“Every animal 1 year old or older who dies is tested for CWD,” Bob Root said. It’s a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose.
“Currently, there is no evidence that CWD poses a risk for humans; however, public health officials recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk,” according to the website cwd-info.org.
CWD was found in Oneida County in 2005 and since then, the state has tightened controls for deer hunters and elk farmers.
Before an elk is harvested, it needs a visual inspection as it stands in the field by a state official, Bob Root said. If it passes muster, the Roots are certified to kill the animal within 24 hours. The Roots take the animal to a butcher, who processes it.
“We are the only job on the floor. It’s not cross-contaminated with a beefer or any other animal,” Bob Root said.
The meat is cut into steaks, roasts, ground meat and other products, then frozen before coming back to the farm. It is identified by the butcher and Mariah Elk Farm’s label.
“That sets up a line of custody,”Root said.
When the couple leaves the butcher shop, they bring the elk’s head to Cornell University, where it is tested for CWD. If no CWD is detected, the meat is certified for sale.
Their animals have never had CWD. In fact, it has not been detected in New York since 2005, according to the DEC.
“If we got that, they would come and kill all the animals,” Root said.
“Ag and Farm Markets will lock up the farm for five years and after that, they will dissuade you from opening again,” Bob Root said.
“It’s a serious disease,” Bev Root said.
The couple has a good relationship with Agriculture and Market officials and belong to the United Elk Farmers Association, Tioga Farm Bureau, American Farm Bureau and other associations.
There’s another lesson from the last 20 years of elk farming:
“This is hands down, farming,” Bob Root said. “There’s no guarantees. Nothing says you are going to make it, until you work, work, work.”
“You are always thinking three months ahead.”