Despite a rather large amount of bull, the Stonewood Elk Ranch is one insightful place to visit.
Located just north of Stonewall, Man., the 300-acre ranch is the largest elk farm in Manitoba. Its owners, the Farmer family (yes, their last name is farmer, and yes they are farmers), are some of the most affable and transparent folks you will meet.
Their herd of 300 elk live on the sprawling open ranch land behind some robust 12 foot fences; an eight-foot fence wouldn’t do. “They can clear it... I've seen it happen," Lou Farmer assures me.
Lou’s late husband Merv bought the land in 1996, in anticipation of the Provincial Government allowing elk farming to begin in March 1997. Merv had begun his retirement from the newspaper industry – he was the founder of Interlake Publishing – and had been looking to turn the family farm from hobby to a full endeavour.
To this day, Lou still doesn’t get why he chose to take elk farming seriously, although daughter-in-law Kelly jokes that the Farmers always had a thing for animals out of the ordinary.
"You guys always had weird animals, like raccoons and geese and peacocks,” said Kelly to her mother-in-law, “so elk was just the next step really.”
The Farmers essentially started the elk meat market here in Manitoba through direct sales at local farmers' markets. As a marketing strategy, they often would somewhat disguise the meat to make it more approachable to the moms who were often buying for their families.
“It’s a bit of a stereotype, but women don’t often like to try wild game,” said Kelly. “So we had to get the women on board and we did a lot of that by making cheese smokies – because the kids love cheese smokies, so if you could get the kids eating it ...”
It was a clever bit of marketing that allowed the family to develop a loyal clientele. The Farmers now deal directly with All Natural Meats in Carman, where their elk are processed, aged for 21 days, packaged and sold, all in one facility.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more transparent system from farm to table, especially considering that everything that goes into the elk comes directly from the Farmers' ranch.
All the elk are all free-range raised; they don't get any antibiotics, they don't get any growth hormones, and the Farmers grow all the hay and feed for them right on their land, free of any pesticides.
As far as protein goes, elk meat itself is about as nutritious as it gets. It’s extremely lean, so you don’t have to cook it long (indeed my favourite treatment is seared then served ultra-rare), while it is high in protein and iron.
In the culinary world, elk meat is also taking off, as chefs have begun to recognize its mild flavour and how it lacks the traditionally wild, iron-like flavour people tend to associate with game meat.
Indeed the recent Winnipeg leg of the Gold Medal Plates was won with an elk striploin tataki, created by chef Kelly Cattani from Elements the Restaurant.