Yak: The Best Alpine Bovine You'll Ever Eat
Vermont Yak Company
Steadfast Farm looks like a normal Vermont farm—they have a vegetable operation, as well as sugar maples up the hill. Their herd in back, however, is what's unusual—the animals are not cows, at least not normal cows. It is here, at the base of a small hill behind an old dairy barn in bad disrepair, that New England's first working yak herd takes its rest.
I saw the farm one day in early September, on the kind of day one envies the shaggy coat sported by the more successful Himalayan ruminants. My guide was Rob Williams, a communications professor at nearby Champlain College in Burlington, who together with a partner founded the Vermont Yak Company three years ago.
Williams explains that despite the inherent weirdness, raising yaks in Vermont is the most reasonable thing in the world, at least more so than raising regular cows. They are cold-hardy, independent creatures, like most Vermonters.
Yaks are not that big, which surprised me—one never imagines saying "Why him? He's no bigger than a yak!" But even the biggest animals at Steadfast were smaller than standard cows, one of the reasons a farmer can raise more of them per acre.
Yaks are bovines, Williams told me—Bos grunniens, the wild grunting cow, but with some important adaptations. They are bred yak-tough in the heights of the Himalayas, and everything about them, from their coats to their ribs, their hooves, and their tiny, shriveled balls, is geared towards living in some of the harshest conditions on earth. Although I may have required a coat, a sweatshirt, two shirts, long underwear, and gloves on my trip to see the yaks, they were perfectly happy just striding about in their shag.
Williams, of course, also called the 18-degree weather "warm."
Vermont Yak Company
The green, though often frozen, hills of Vermont's Mad River Glen are practically a buffet to animals used to picking a living out of high-altitude, rocky terrain. That ability to graze lightly and still thrive on a marginal diet, Williams says, makes these animals perfect for small farmers in Vermont. A couple of yaks will produce more meat per acre than a more cumbersome cow, albeit with less meat per animal.
Williams believes yaks could have the power to start changing the working landscape in the Green Mountain State. My drive up to Steadfast Farm seemed like the New England idyll from a distance—rolling mountains streaked with ski trails, quaint Victorian homes, and weathered barns. Those weathered barns, however, weren't just weathered, but abandoned, graffitied, and falling apart. The bed and breakfasts that line the road might capitalize on the small-farm image, but the reality of Vermont agriculture is a familiar story of consolidation into large operations.
"Vermont is a state that has put so many of its agricultural eggs in the dairy basket," Williams says. "But the dairy industry in Vermont is getting killed. They're tied into this global milk production thing."
Those drafty barns, however, are perfect homes for yaks.
Williams has big dreams for his little hairy cows—not just a bigger herd for the Vermont Yak Company, but for yaks spread out in herds across New England. Balancing diversity and specialization is key to a new breed of small farms, and Williams believes that the kind of diversity offered by an animal like a yak, so suited to the particularities of Vermont, could go a long way towards making the Green Mountain State's agricultural landscape more resilient.
These yaks aren't going to do much for the dairy industry—musty yak milk might take a while to catch on in America—but Vermont Yak is raising meat animals, and they were the most delicious Himalayan bovines I've ever eaten. I sampled yak ribeye, strip steak, and shin steaks, and even lived off of yak breakfast sausages made with maple syrup from Steadfast Farm's trees for a few days. The meat was slightly sweet, strongly flavored without reaching venison levels, and sometimes so lean that I needed to put a little canola oil in the pan to keep it from burning.
Americans seem more and more willing to try unusual meats as the Slow Food movement expands into mainstream culture, but it may be a while before mothers are sending their sons to the grocery store to pick up some yak for dinner. For now, the local community and some nearby restaurants have enthusiastically embraced their quirky neighbor's steaks.
For a longer version of this story, read the spring issue of Meatpaper.