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Will Reindeer Take Off -- In the Meat Aisle?

Aug 25, 2010 – 9:30 AM
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess Contributor

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (Aug. 25) -- Ever watch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and think, "I wonder what that little guy would taste like on the grill?"

Probably not, and that points to the challenges that would seem to confront the University of Alaska at Fairbanks researchers who earlier this month launched a study to determine whether consumers will buy reindeer meat, and at what price. Yet so far -- and you might want to hide the next part of this report from your Santa-loving toddlers -- the meat has almost literally been flying out of the local grocery store where the study is taking place.

HomeGrown Market owner Jeff Johnson received about 500 pounds, or the meat of three slaughtered reindeer, from the herd owned and managed by UAF's Reindeer Research Program at the start of August. Three weeks along, he's only got 150 pounds left and is on pace to run out by the end of the month. He plans to obtain another batch and keep selling for a year to see how things shake out.

Jeff Johnson, owner of Homegrown Market in Fairbanks, Alaska, proudly displays reindeer steaks.
Courtesy Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson, owner of HomeGrown Market in Fairbanks, Alaska, displays reindeer steaks he sells for $25 a pound as part of a study through the local university to determine whether there's a market for it and what people will pay.
Right now, he gets a whopping $25 per pound for prime cuts, $20 per pound for Blitzen burgers. (OK, they don't really call them that.) Most of the sales are from walk-in customers, but people as far away as South Carolina have ordered shipments, too. The HomeGrown Market website prominently touts: "We now have reindeer!"

By the way, the average cost of a pound of pure, grass-fed ground beef at the gourmet grocery is $6 per pound. So Donner, at least for now, is drawing more than three times the price of Elsie.

"To me it's the novelty of it that's making it go at these prices," Johnson said. "The first 60 days, I think people are just going to buy it because it's reindeer. But what's it going to take for people in Vegas to want to buy reindeer, to go to a restaurant and say, 'Beef, pork, chicken, that's great, but what about reindeer?' I don't mean just the upper-end class, but for average people to say, 'We're going to mix this in to change up our diet because it's exceptionally good meat.'"

'What? Rudolph? How Can You?'

As hard as it is for Burl Ives fans to hear, reindeer has some serious health bona fides, said George Aguiar, research coordinator for Reindeer Research Program. UAF's School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences keeps about 80 free-range reindeer on a sprawling farm at the campus, studying them the way animal husbandry schools in the Lower 48 are forever examining cattle.

"It's a high-protein, low-fat, super-tender, high-mineral meat," said Aguiar, noting that Scandinavians and Russians eat it regularly. "As far as quality, it's tender, really tender. It's one of the most tender meats in the world. All the fat is on the outside of the animal, so you don't get marbling. It has a sweet taste. It doesn't have a gamey taste."

Reindeer were brought to North America from Siberia in the late 1800s expressly as a red meat source for Eskimos living on western Alaska's Seward Peninsula, a 210-mile-long outcropping jutting into the Bering Sea from which, in the correct spots, it is possible to see Russia.

By the 1920s, Alaska had more than 600,000 reindeer, and farmers here sought to become competitive with the cattle industry across the U.S. Yet in-roads into the broader national market were halted with the onset of the Great Depression; even then, reindeer were a more expensive product. Today, about 20,000 reindeer are raised on farms around Alaska, a dramatic decline traced to the disappearance of the market for the meat and increases in populations of wolves and bears that prey on them.

Also relevant to the decline: In 1939, author Robert L. May created the story of Rudolph for his employer, Montgomery Ward, to sell as a children's Christmas book. The department store chain sold 2.4 million copies the first year, and the red-nosed frequent flier was instantly enshrined in American pop culture lore.

"That's nothing new; we get that all the time," Aguiar said. "People say, 'What? Rudolph? How can you?'"

Reindeer Farmers' Dilemma: Rent Out, or Butcher?

Yet as Johnson's experience this month shows, a latent appetite for reindeer meat remains. Whether it can ever break out of being an exotic purchase, however, depends upon both whether it can be destigmatized and whether farmers can produce enough of it to create a regular supply. Johnson said Alaskan restaurants have inquired, but as of now, there's no large-scale USDA-approved slaughter facility or the herd populations to provide the quantities they would need.

Lest you think this is solely a taste acquired mainly by Alaskans, Carol Borton of the six-acre Reindeer Ranch in Kalamazoo, Mich., has also recently found a robust market for the meat via mail order. Borton's 15 reindeer are primarily rented out to appear at Christmastime events, but last year she had a few members of her herd butchered for online sale. She priced prime cuts at $35 per pound, secondary cuts at $28 per pound and reindeer jerky at $8.50 per quarter pound. It all sold out. She's now considering how to grow that business.

Still, she also experienced some backlash. A local school group scheduled a field trip to the ranch last year, but many parents refused to send their kids when they learned through Borton's website that they also intend to expand its reindeer meat business. Borton is also a bit of an outsider among other members of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association, or ROBA, a group otherwise composed of folks who keep reindeer for hiring out for Christmas displays or purchase as pets.

Aguiar and his UAF colleagues, as the foremost American experts on all things reindeer, have attended ROBA conferences to provide advice, said ROBA vice president Kyle Wilson, owner of Rocky Hill Reindeer in Knoxville, Tenn.

Wilson noted that in his experience, it is far more profitable to keep reindeer for annual events than to slaughter them for meat, even at the prices Johnson and Borton get. He has 12 reindeer and earns $3,000 each for providing them to clients who want them around between Thanksgiving and Christmas as a seasonal accent.

"More than anything else, it's not politically correct to eat Rudolph," Wilson said. "We who have them, rent them or show them, we get the warm-and-fuzzy thing going on, and the furthest thing from your mind is eating one of them. In the Lower 48, we have it for Christmas, but we don't eat it for Christmas."
Filed under: Nation, Weird News
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