Hank Forester, QDMA’s Hunting Heritage Programs Manager, and I had quite the experience in Georgia last year with a pilot program we named “Field to Fork” after an existing model in Kentucky. Field to Fork spawned from a realization that an exponentially increasing percentage of Americans are becoming more concerned with where their food comes from, commonly called the locavore movement. We wanted to provide a program to offer people of this mindset a chance to take ownership of their protein source and increase the relevance of hunting in this segment of society in the process.
The first iteration of Field to Fork in Georgia involved Hank and I recruiting participants from the local farmer’s market in Athens. We had overwhelming interest with demand substantially exceeding our capacity. The final roster of participants, ages 18 to 47, came from all walks of life including a school teacher, organic farmer, chef, nutritionist, and a landscape planner just to name a few. We provided the participants training and field time resulting in a fairly holistic view of deer hunting. The program received excellent feedback, involved a few harvests, and resulted in the majority of participants going hunting again afterwards. Only time will tell if any of the them will become lifelong hunters, but initial survey responses from participants and data from other states with similar programs look promising.
Field to Fork is certainly a program we want to replicate in other areas of Georgia, but first we needed to focus on sustainability of the Athens program. To do this, additional equipment and increased volunteer involvement were a requirement. Thankfully, we were able to use part of a grant from the Cabela’s Outdoor Fund to cover equipment that will last for years to come. As far as the volunteer component, we didn’t have to look any further than the Athens Branch of QDMA. This is a relatively young Branch led by Aaron Whiting, but he has already successfully filled it with a passionate group of deer hunters. When we approached Aaron’s Branch about being involved in the program, they agreed without hesitation. While the Athens Branch planned to take on the majority of the on-the-ground implementation, the program was still a truly cooperative effort with additional resources coming from the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division, and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Similar to last year, we recruited participants by setting up a booth at the Athens Farmers Market. We offered an impressive spread of fair-chase venison including sliced backstrap, sausage, jerky, and distributed a fact sheet entitled “Why YOU Should Hunt Deer.” The reception was once again overwhelming, and everyone was interested in trying venison. Interestingly enough, each year we have quite a number of vegetarians who are open to eating wild game considering it lived a life free of confinement and welfare concerns.
The participants in this year’s program, ages 28 to 54, and including nine men and one woman, once again covered a fairly diverse span of careers including a roofer, chiropractor, racecar engineer, business consultant, and quite a few University of Georgia researchers. The common theme among them was they all wanted to learn how to hunt deer for food but have never had an avenue to do so. Keeping their desire for free-range, additive-free meat in mind, we were sure to include venison meals with both training sessions.
We held the trainings on weekday evenings. In the classroom we covered how hunting has played a vital role in conservation historically and present day, an overview of deer biology, and crossbow safety. Crossbows were chosen to introduce this audience to the outdoors because it allowed us to access local urban properties and, for some locavores, archery equipment is initially more palatable than firearms. For the field component of training we discussed hunting strategies and provided ample shooting opportunity both on the range and from simulated hunting situations.
The hunt weekend was held on the second weekend of archery season, and it was certainly warm, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time! Jon Hallemeier, an anthropology graduate student, was the first participant to harvest. His mentor Justin Turner, Chief Engineer at the EPA and active Athens Branch member, was eager to be involved in this program. Justin didn’t come from a hunting family and remembers how steep the learning curve was without someone to show you the ropes. He had the perfect spot picked out for him and Jon in a box stand overlooking a group of persimmon trees.
Immediately after Jon and Justin settled in, deer starting coming out of the woodwork. Before long, six deer were in view with one doe working her way toward the stand. She closed the distance and settled in under a persimmon tree seven yards from their position. After they exchanged some whispers, Jon decided he wanted to try to take the shot. He slowly raised his crossbow to the window with shaking hands from the adrenaline all bow hunters are so familiar with. By the time Jon was in position and calm enough for an ethical shot, the doe had worked her way out to 35 yards. Justin waited for her to turn broadside and gave Jon the green light to squeeze the trigger. The bolt landed a little far back, but well within the vitals. Jon looked over at Justin, who was speechless and trembling from excitement. They brought the doe back to QDMA Headquarters, and I gave Jon his first deer-cleaning lesson.
This year’s Field to Fork ended with a culinary social involving the participants, guides, and representatives from the partnering organizations. The dinner was a potluck format with a plethora of venison dishes, and everyone certainly left a few pounds heavier than when they arrived. There were some excellent hunting stories told, and everyone gave their input on their experience. While this was the end of the official program, it was certainly not the end of the adventure. The involvement of the Athens Branch of QDMA has led to members offering Field to Fork participants substantial follow-up opportunities resulting in multiple deer harvests.
Hunting participation is down across America. If we as hunters do not stand up and welcome people who are interested in hunting, who think differently and come from different backgrounds than us, we will be left behind. You do not have to be part of a program like Field to Fork to have an impact, and we strongly encourage you to take someone new afield with you this year. One-on-one mentorship will play a vital role in securing the future of wildlife conservation and our hunting heritage. However, if you live in an area where farmer’s markets are popular, farm-to-table restaurants are plentiful, and you are interested in replicating Field to Fork, please contact Hank Forester.