Chapter 2/GO WILD: TAKING STOCK IN VERMONT
I’m standing on a Vermont hillside, taking stock.
High summer afternoon on this July day is glorious – bluebird sunny, with a steady breeze blowing down across the Green Mountains’ eastern spine, carrying in a hint of moisture from Lake Champlain to the west.
I’m holding a monstrous weed whacker in my gloved left hand, warm and still pulsing from over an hour of continuous use. My right hand, meanwhile, cradles a protective plastic helmet, while I pause to air out my skull, resonating to the same frequency as the weed whacker. Just above me, our entire herd of 30 yaks lounges in the breezy shade of a tree copse, regarding me with what I can only imagine is collective bemusement. “Silly sapien,” their body language suggests. “Lie down! Rest and ruminate.” Next to me? A growing pile of “whacked” burdock. Beloved by herbalists everywhere for its medicinal properties, the burrs prove the bane of our yak farm existence, their velcro prickles wreaking havoc when embedded in hairy yak hides. Yak and burdock, we were learning, have a knack for mutual entanglement – a sticky situation for everyone.
While burrs and yaks did not get along, I couldn’t help but marvel at the yak’s unique evolutionary “look and feel.” Resting the weed whacker on the hillside, I study our yaks more closely. An isometric view of a yak reveals a mammal that looks, at first appearances, like any other bovine. Move to the side, and the yak’s distinctive hump quickly emerges - perhaps a yak’s most distinctive anatomical feature, and easy to spot from a distance among mature specimens. Look more closely. Two layers of thick shaggy hair encase a yak’s frame, draped over a compact bovine torso sporting an added set of ribs, which encases an enlarged heart for efficient cardiovascular performance. Hanging down the length of a yak’s body, like a rasta run amuck, are long guard hairs, added protection from wind and cold that when knotted give the yaks a fashion’dready Bob Marley look. Below the guard hairs, notice a yak’s sturdy legs. Surprisingly fast when they want to be, yaks can gallop like horses and jump like gazelles. Specially designed hooves, which emerged over centuries of sustained high mountain travel, ensure a combination of sure footedness and light tread over rugged rocky outcroppings and fragile high-altitude meadow grass. Move around to a yak’s front, and take in a yak’s wide head covered with fine shag. A yak’s skull provides a flat platform from which protrudes a yak’s signature sweeping curved horns, below which large and expressive eyes, alert and observant, track your every move. Yak lips and relatively soft mouth, surprisingly soft, house mandibles featuring a sole set of bottom teeth which protect yaks’ primary food source - delicate mountain grasses - from being ripped out by their roots (think goats and sheep) when yaks dine at altitude.
"Go Wild" yak'natomy - close up of a royal yak at Vermont Yak Company's Steadfast Farm.
Lost in observation, I turn away from the yaks to reach for my water bottle, and jump. Directly on the other side of our pastured fence line stand five complete strangers – motionless, silent, and staring in rapt attention over my right shoulder to the beasts slumming on the hillside. As if in greeting, a lazy grunniens grunt floats down from the trees, eliciting a smile from these unexpected visitors. Recovering my senses, I scrutinize our guests, and then nod in greeting. Dark skinned, lean, and dressed in long sleeves despite the afternoon heat, they appear to be either Tibetan or Nepalese, an entire family – dad, mom, and their 3 kids (I surmised) - come to confirm the existence of Vermont’s first-ever yak herd. How long they have been standing there, I do not know. They speak no English, and my halting greeting of “Tashi Delek” and then “Namaste” (the only Tibetan and Nepalese phrases I know) make them all grin even more, confirming my guess as to their origins, but giving me no further information. We stand for several minutes, me on one side of the fence, they on the other, watching the yaks together, comfortable in the silence and the beauty of this timeless Vermont summer afternoon. After what seems an eternity, the patriarch reaches out over the fence and takes my hand, clasps it firmly, smiles again, bows, and then herds his family (Tibetans, I later learned) east across the pasture, away back down the hill behind our old abandoned dairy barn, and out of sight.
Yak mama Christine, who embodied bos grunniens' "go wild" tendencies.
Vermont has a wonderful old farm tradition of neighbors visiting new animals in the spring when they are born. Once our yaks arrived at Vermont Yak Company’s Steadfast Farm in April 2008, word got out, and soon, plenty of folks – from trusted neighbors to random strangers – would drop in on us, sometimes unannounced, to gaze with their own eyes upon Vermont’s first-ever yak herd. I’ve often thought of this surprising and oddly moving encounter with the Tibetan family on that summer Vermont day more than a decade ago. I never saw that family again, but our chance encounter, in the presence of the yaks, has stayed with me. Pursuing a deeper understanding of bos grunniens, I came to realize, also meant chasing down a deeper appreciation of what it means to be human. Without realizing the ramifications, our Vermont Yak Company team members found ourselves sapien stewards of these mysterious creatures we knew next to nothing about, as well as ambassadors to all those interested in finding out more about our exotic four hooved friends, including yakkers (like our drop in Tibetan family) whose culture carries with it intimate historic ties to these unique animals.
Beyond becoming spokespeople for our yaks, we suddenly found ourselves practicing pastoralists. Yakking has its own seasonal rhythm, dictated by the weather, the grass, and the animals themselves. Yaks, we learned, are born resilient, hard wired to adopt adaptability. As new yakkers, we learned from their daily example, unconsciously embracing resilience with the yaks as our teachers. How conscious were we of this transformative process? Hard to say. With hindsight, however, it is clear that our many years with our yaks changed us all. “Ethology,” a term first coined by 19th century French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint Hilaire and popularized by 20th century US entomologist William Morton Wheeler (famed curator at New York City’s Museum of Natural History) refers to “the scientific study of animal behavior.” Without knowing it, our daily yakking regimen at Steadfast Farm morphed us into ethologists, biologists, and, above all else, daily pasture managers. We became more keen observers of our daily interactions - yaks, weather, seasons, forage, and our own collective temperament. We also became observers of our own human condition, pushed by our daily yak interactions to dig deeper into our own selves and we sapiens as a species.
To be clear, “going wild” with our yaks in Vermont didn’t happen overnight. Instead, we gradually absorbed the lessons and stories this curious species had to teach. Watching yaks daily deploy themselves across our small patch of pasture in central Vermont’s Mad River Valley helped bring home their uniqueness, and again and again, we marveled at their adaptability. What I didn’t expect, though, was how much yaks would teach me about being human, and how we sapiens have evolved over millennia to arrive at our current status as planetary masters. “Wildness” proved our yaks’ most remarkable ur-characteristic - their connections to their wild past, embodied in a particular approach to their world (their “umvelt”) that defies description, a personality trait that I’ve heard described by many names: “spirited,” “feisty,” “ornery,” “cantankerous” and “independent” are probably the five at the top of the list. We Vermonters live in dairy land, a country populated by huge lumbering Holsteins, Jerseys, and the other domesticated cattle who’ve had the “wild” bred out of them over millennia by we sapiens for milk production, meat yield, and tameness of temperament. Here in the Green Mountains, we are surrounded by cartoonish cow icons who grin out at us daily from tee shirts, folk art, coffee mugs, and pint size paper cartons of Ben and Jerry’s containers, frozen chunks of cream sporting catchy names like “Chunky Monkey” and “Phish Food.”
Yaks, on the other hand, are an entirely different kind of bovine – wild at heart, and not at all shy about reminding you of their evolutionary history as grass-seeking and freedom-loving foragers. Over time, I came to appreciate that inviting yaks into Vermont provided a welcome disruption to the sleepy somnambulance of domestication that has settled over our pastured landscapes, and ecologist Paul Shepard reminds us that, evolutionarily speaking, we sapiens are essentially wild at heart, Pleistocene beings trapped within the domesticated confines of our 10,000 year old Holocene era. “Wild species are true Others, the components of wilderness, and at the same time are the external correlates of our innermost selves,” he observed in his 1995 The Wilderness Is Where My Genome Lives, one of the last essays published before his death. “Our Pleistocene specieshood,” he explained, “owes little or nothing to evolution during the last 10,000 years, except perhaps for some local shifts in gene frequencies associated with resistance to epidemic diseases, food allergies, or crowding, along with a widened diffusion of genes among races that were isolated early on.” Yaks’ relatively wild nature, which we encountered daily over the seven years we worked with them, catalyzed my deeper dive into understanding our evolutionary roots as sapiens, and what the yak might teach us about being more deeply human, which is to say, “going wild.”
Before trekking further down this path, however, let’s take stock here in Vermont. How did we – our yaks and our team of Vermont yakkers - get here? What did we – sapiens and grunniens – learn from our seven years of yakking together in the Green Mountains?
Begin with a single question, posed out of the blue almost exactly one year before my surprising hillside encounter with the visiting Tibetan family, on a glorious New England summer day.
“Why don’t we start a yak farm here in Vermont?”
My wife Kate, the question asker, was about as focused and frugal a person as you’ll find, a mix of her Scandinavian heritage and New England upbringing. In retrospect, her question seemed crazy in the moment, but I found myself nodding my head and agreeing immediately, partly because I had been thinking the same thing. But also, because my wife would never pose what she liked to call a “wild hair” idea (fitting, given the shaggy critters we would soon adopt) unless she had really thought through the implications. But still. Start a yak farm? Let me explain our life in 2007. Kate ran a small nonprofit start up – the Northern Forest Canoe Trail - out of an office in the town of Waitsfield, in central Vermont’s Mad River Valley, working at least 50 hours a week, while I was hustling as a college professor and newspaper publisher in the nearby city of Burlington. We had two young kids – 8-year-old daughter Anneka and 5-year-old son Theron - who demanded our full-time attention, as well as a homestead with all the requisite seasonal chores – mowing, gardening, wood splitting and stacking, and fielding dogs, cats, and chicken. Add local civic responsibilities – serving on Waitsfield’s select board (Kate) and school board (me) – and our Vermont plate was full.
Kate up for early morning herding at Vermont Yak Company's Steadfast Farm.
Start a yak farm? I can’t believe the two of us agreed and said yes. But there it was. Our yakking life was born out of a moment of marital blue sky’ing. And just where did the idea of starting a yak farm in Vermont come from? The answer, of course, is Paradise Valley, Montana. Wife Kate’s older brother Per and his partner Barb live in the tiny Big Sky Country town of Pray (population 681, give or take), a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone River just north of the Wyoming/ Montana border. The two had started a livestock business in 2006 – Wolf Ridge Lamb and Wool Company - grazing hundreds of Icelandic sheep on local pastured properties, and selling their lamb to nearby restaurants, including an upscale tourist hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Kate and I took Anneka and Theron out for a visit in early summer 2007 on a working vacation to help with the ranching (throwing sheep around is both hard work and endlessly entertaining). Our first day in Pray, we encountered yaks for the first time, in the form of four guard grunniens Per and Barb had deployed among their sheep to protect the vulnerable flock from predators – wolves, coyotes, the occasional bear –who wandered out of the Montana mountains in search of an easy meal.
Shortly before we arrived, Per and Barb had happened to slaughter one of their yaks, and the meat was fresh and ready to eat. Curious, not knowing what to expect, we sampled their yak steak, sitting at their mobile home’s small kitchen table. Sirloin - a deep, rich, reddish hue, delicate of texture when knifed. We had never tasted anything quite like it. In two words, yak meat was uniquely delicious. Our kids agreed. They asked for second helpings of the yak steak. Then thirds. Kate and I took notice. Our young kids were not picky eaters, but they didn’t much rave about food, either. The texture and taste of yak, though, got them both excited. “Yak’s got more protein and less fat than any other beef,” Barb said proudly, smiling, regaling us with data about grass-fed yak meat’s many health benefits: higher omega 3s, wellness boosting amino acids of various types, and other nutritional minutia that washed over me like a wave and left me both baffled and asking for more steak. I had no idea that red meat could taste so good. As we ate and talked, Barb described yak meat as “delicate, slightly sweet, with a hint of the herbaceous,” a lilting, lovely phrase I’ve since repeated hundreds of times over the past decade.
Our kids simply declared, “yak is yummy!” Intrigued, we plied Barb and Per with yak questions. Why yaks as guard animals for your sheep? Kate asked. “We had thought of trying mules or donkeys, after I saw a neighbor who worked with exotic animals,” Barb explained. “We spent $6,000 on a llama who was pathetic – he’d go to the furthest corner of the pasture and huddle up by himself, wanting nothing to do with the sheep.” Per jumped in. “After the llama disaster, we yak-napped two four-day-old yaks from their mamas, combat weaned ‘em via bottle feeding while trying not to coddle them, and stuck ‘em in the pen with our sheep,” Per detailed. “We figured that yak meat was tasty by reputation, so if our yak/sheep experiment failed, we could just eat the wooly buggers.” (That’s fly fishing/yak humor – Per was a skilled flycaster as well as Montana ranch man extraordinaire.) “Our joke is – there are no mirrors in the sheep pen,” Barb said, laughing. “Our yaks have no idea they aren’t sheep, except when predators show up, and then the yaks face off against danger, moving our sheep behind them.” “The whole experiment is working better than we expected,” Per added. “Yaks sometimes boss the flock around, like on a hot day at the water trough, they’ll push sheep out of the way to drink first. But mostly, with our giant flock, our yaks are really protective.” In this way, Barb and Per explained, guard yaks were able to monitor both the health of the sheep flock and the arrival of possible predators.
“Why, then, did you decide to slaughter one of your yaks?” we asked. “Because that particular yak was goring some sheep with his horns, giving our ewes hernias,” Barb told us, “and after we ‘retired’ him, we cut off the horn tips of other three yaks, which is working out to be a better solution.” Again, Per jumped in. “These three yaks are SO attached to our sheep that they can’t stand seeing a single one removed from the flock,” Per explained. “They snort and stomp and get all ornery – the yaks seem to need to keep the sheep flock in order.” Barb was nodding. “We had a ram who lost an eye in combat with another ram, and his socket got infected,” Barb added. “One of our yaks backed that sick ram into a corner of the pasture and would not let him rejoin the other sheep, eat, or drink, until he grew weak and died. It was almost as if the yaks know that letting a diseased sheep back into the flock would be no good for anyone.” I was intrigued. Yak behavior seemed fascinating.
That Saturday afternoon, we all rolled over to the farmer’s market in the nearby town of Livingston. Being a grilling enthusiast from childhood, I offered to cook up Per and Barb’s yak meat and give away samples. Local Livingston’ites, most of whom had never sampled yak meat before, had the same reaction as our kids. “This may be the best steak I’ve ever eaten!” said several adventurous eaters over the course of the afternoon. Our fascination with yak piqued, we returned to Vermont, where we had been in the midst of conversations with our neighbors Ted and Susan Laskaris, who had purchased an abandoned dairy farm on route 100 just north of Waitsfield, and were trying to figure out how to revive the farm property in some sort of sustainable way. “Sheep, or maybe pigs?” they had asked us that past spring. “Chickens? Goats?” “What about yaks?” Kate and I responded upon our return. “Why don’t we all start a yak farm?” The question that just wouldn’t go away.
Like Kate and me, Ted and Susan, slightly older, had rich and full lives: raising three teenage kids (Nik – 15, Ben – 13, Emma – 11), supporting their own animal menagerie of dogs, cats and chickens, working a Burlington-based job in the world of corporate finance (Ted), full time “soccer mom’ing” (Susan), supporting a live-in relative - Ted’s delightful mother Judith - and cleaning up and restoring their abandoned dairy farm property. A big, amiable guy with charm and financial acumen to match, Ted immediately perked up at the word “yak,” as did his wife Susan - down to earth, reasonable, and a lover of all species, winged, hooved, and otherwise. Yaks? They both laughed, and then began the litany of questions. Why yaks? Are there any yaks here in Vermont already? And who we gonna yak with to figure out how to yak? The puns just came naturally, along with their very reasonable questions, all three.
In response, I made two phone calls. The first was to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
“Hello,” I said. “Is anyone raising yaks here in Vermont?” There was a long pause. “Yaks, you say?” “That’s right. Hairy, hump’y, horny Asian cows.” “Nope, not that we’ve ever heard of,” came the response. I could feel what might be best described as “quizzical grinning” on the other end of the line. My second call was to Per and Barb in Montana. “How much would it cost for you to overnight us three pounds of yak meat?” Barb laughed. “We’ll make it happen.” Two nights later, somewhat serendipitously while our requested yak meat was in transit, I ran into Ted and Susan’s neighbor, Dave Hartshorn, at the Waitsfield’s Big Picture Theater and Café bar – 5 pm happy hour and the quaffing was good. “Farmer Davey,” as we called him, grew up milking cows as a kid on the dairy farm now owned by Ted and Susan, and had since moved just up the road, where he ran an expansive vegetable farming operation on several pieces of land throughout Mad River Valley, including more than a dozen acres that abutted Ted and Susan’s place.
The Hartshorn family was legend in central Vermont – Dave’s dad Paul was a local Waitsfield “town father,” and still ran a farm, lumber mill, and sugaring operation in his late seventies. In terms of a daily work ethic, Paul ran circles around most men a third of his age. Dave continued the Hartshorn legend, up every day before 5 am to plant, tend and harvest dozens of acres of farmland all over Mad River. Evenings, I knew he could be found at our local town watering hole socializing and taking in the latest Hollywood blockbuster after a full day in the hot sun. “Davey!” I said, greeting him at the bar. “Here’s a crazy idea. What if we started a yak farm up the road with Ted and Susan?”Dave, tanned, brawny, sporting one of his colorful trademark Hawai’ian shirts, looked at me deadpan, looked deep into the bottom of his beer glass for a moment, and then looked back at me. “As long I don’t have to milk ‘em, Robbie, I’m in.”
Vermont Yak Company's biannual YAK RODEO day with vet Roy Hadden - Steadfast Farm.
Our team assembled and our Montana package about to arrive, I began to research yaks, trying to learn more about these awesome animals. While I could piece together a general yak timeline from a number of online sources, I could not find any sort of comprehensive account of yaks, other than the United Nations Food and Agriculture treatise. Having started a folder on yaks, here’s what I gleaned by way of a quick scientific/historical sketch when I started poking around. Yak facts, summarized. Descended from the ancient auroch, a wild species of giant cattle that once roamed Eurasia, the wild yak (bos mutus) is native to the Himalayas and in the same genus – bos - as wild cattle, along with three other cousins: the banteng (a Southeast Asian species), the hefty Indogaur (the largest of wild cattle, six feet at shoulder height), and the Indochinese kouprey (a wild ox only discovered in the 1930s). This family of wild cattle, including the yak, diverged from water buffalo and bison between 3 and 4 million years ago (some disagreement and debate here), and some scientists argue that the yak, despite its ability to interbreed with cattle, should be returned to Poephagus, its former genus. Bos Grunniens or Poephagus Grunniens? The science of yak, I was learning, like the yak itself, was somewhat mysterious. Today, very few wild yaks (bos mutus) remain, as 21st century globalization and the enclosure of all things wild continues to take its course.
How did this sexy beast go from wild/mutus to domestic/grunniens? The region now known as Chinese Tibet is pegged as the most probable point of origin for bos grunniens. the domesticated version of the wild yak, and Tibetan herders vie with the ancient Chinese (the Qiang people) for credit in reining in yaks, taming (sort of) this relentlessly mobile creature. A member of the bovidae family, the yak is most efficiently described as a “long haired, short legged ungulate,” and currently, the 21st century population of domestic yaks numbers roughly 13 million globally.
Biologically, yaks are four-stomached ruminants, happiest munching seasonal grasses at elevations of between 14,000 and 20,000 feet, which makes the high mountain Himalayas of the Tibetan Plateau, western Mongolia’s Altai mountains, and the grasslands of western China the most ideal of yak habitats. Hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s by indigenous herders, yaks have since made a bit of a comeback, helped along by their status as iconic beasts of burden for the Himalayan-based global mountaineering industry, which has exploded in popularity during the past century, as well as human’s relentless quest to exploit every other species on the planet and prop up distressed species (like yaks) as interest dictates.
Bringing bos grunniens closer to home, yaks arrived in North America through Canada in the mid 19th century, and the continental population today remains at only a few thousand. Why raise yaks in the colder parts of the Americas? Meat and milk, hides and horns, textiles and fiber, trekking and tourism are the reasons most commonly cited by members of both the International Yak Association (IYAK) and USYAKS, two rival organizations attempting to network together yakkers across the continent. The North American yak community, I began to learn, are as curious as yaks themselves – cantankerous, independent, funny, and yes, prone to both hyperbole and yak puns.
To give you a flavor for what I mean, here’s a quick taste from the IYAK and USYAK web sites, the two main North American yak trade organizations.
Yak fiber is “as soft as cashmere and stronger.” Yak trekking? “Yaks have been used as beasts of burden for thousands of years.” Yak dairy – “yak milk is delicious with a mild sweet flavor and high fat content.” Yak health – “yaks are known for their hardiness and resistance to disease.” And of course, yak meat – “delicious, super lean, high in protein and rich in omega 3s, which make it a good alternative to beef.” Another yak irony – yak meat IS beef, because a yak is, scientifically speaking, a form of cattle – a cow - but because yaks are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be an “exotic” animal, yak meat cannot legally be labeled or classified as “beef” within US borders. At least, not yet. My favorite yak phrase, meanwhile, one that occurs on most every North American yakking web site? Yaks are “easy keepers.” Full blown promotional language, with alliterative rhyme, to match. “Easy Keepers?” Reading these two words now, with hindsight, is enough to produce side splitting laughter. Easy keepers? Yaks? Meaning – “yaks don’t require barns or special fencing” like other cattle do. True enough. But whomever conjured that phrase – “easy keepers” – clearly was either a backseat yakker quarterbacking their herd from a Lazy Boy, or an enlightened Buddhist mystic who could talk directly to bos grunniens with her mind.
My initial dive into the world of yak research provided plenty of food for thought, as we moved forward our Vermont yak conversations. One week later, Kate and I cooked up our Montana yak meat three ways – meatballs, burger, and “yakittore” kebabs – inviting Dave, Ted, and Susan over for dinner. Over yak, wine and ice cream, we explored the possibilities. No surprise, the yak meat proved delicious– everyone was hooked – and a handshake agreement among the five us sealed the deal birthing what we decided to call “Vermont Yak Company.” Ted and Kate agreed to be our financial and accounting point people. We dubbed Davey our chief yak wrangler (this title proved prescient.) Susan would serve as “on farm” manager and logistician. Rob would run marketing – the telling of our VYC story. And all of us agreed to commit equal time to a weekly “on farm” schedule to keep Vermont Yak Company’s Steadfast Farm running. This meant, mud boots, Carhartts, work gloves, John Deere tractor driving, dedicated seasonal yak wear, and giant wooden sticks for all. And that’s how it all began –a yak meat meal from Montana grew into an agri’preneurial adventure comprised of three families, two farms, 24 acres, and a small herd of yaks located in the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Little did we know what we were in for.
Preparations. Our five-person team spent eight months “yak proofing” the Laskaris and Hartshorn farm properties. By early spring 2008, we had purchased water troughs and installed permanent four strand border fencing, networked together via sturdy posts, enclosing two dozen acres of pastured meadow running roughly parallel to rural Route 100, a two-lane state road. Lightly forested on the farm’s north and south ends, our yak farm property was bordered to our east by the Mad River just below us and across route 100, and to the west by Vermont’s famed Green Mountains, our pasture grass rolling upward towards mountainous geological icons: Mount Abraham, Camel’s Hump, and Mount Mansfield.
International visitors to Vermont Yak Company and Steadfast Farm.
By April 2008, Steadfast Farm was ready to receive its first four hooved visitors. Our officially launch began when Vermont’s first-ever herd of 24 yaks arrived in the Mad River Valley on a 53-foot animal trailer rolling in from a thousand mile journey east from Cold Spring, Minnesota. Ted and I had driven west a few days before to visit with our sellers – John and Becky Hooper, who ran a herd of close to 90 yaks - and oversee the purchase and loading of our 24 shaggy critters. John was known as “the Yak Man” in midwest circles, with his wife Becky keeping him in check. We spent a whirlwind 24 hours on their farm, with John loading us into his 4 wheeled Gator, zooming us up and down the fence line, haying, graining, and watering his 90 yaks with quick bursts of youthful energy. He also showed us how to quietly move into proximity of the pastured beasts, approaching our shaggy charges openly yet cautiously, sticks in hand, just in case a yak decided to “get ideas,” as he liked to say.
“Rule #1,” John explained, a smile on his face, while approaching a mama yak in love with both her calf and her grunt, “never turn your back on a yak.” Not that yaks were mean or aggressive per se, he explained, but yaks are ‘spirited,’ meaning they have personality and can be unpredictable in their behavior, especially around creatures (including people) they don’t know. With the arrival of our driver and his animal trailer, we loaded up our newly purchased herd (a surprisingly easy operation, rarely repeated, as it turned out), and, waving our goodbyes and thanks to Becky and John, we headed east for Vermont. The ever-jovial Ted and I spun scenarios, joked, and talked nonstop on the two-day car ride home, yak puns bouncing around the car at regular intervals.
The first yaks arrive at Vermont Yak Company's Steadfast Farm - spring 2008.
To be clear - no amount of preparation readied us for the arrival of our yaks. After two days of driving east to Vermont, our bewildered herd of 24 animals, confined to their tiny rolling quarters, were ready to get the hell out of the trailer. We had a small army of excited Vermont friends and neighbors ready to greet them, as well as temporary fencing to lead our shaggy new guests from trailer to the main paddock and their new home. All went smoothly at first, until Christine (ear tag #44), a beautiful if excitable black yak cow, decided to make a run for it, jumping the fence, and (in what seemed an eye blink) running off at full gallop, heading north up Vermont state road Route 100. Four of us took off in hot pursuit, only to find ourselves ducking into bushes and behind trees as Christine, in a panic, turned back towards the herd, grunting, snorting, and charging, unsure of how best to handle her newly won if temporary freedom.
After what seemed a lifetime of bluff charges, head scratching, and emergency plans tried and denied (us new yakkers were as green as green could be), Farmer Dave tapped into his inner cowboy, managing to get close enough to Christine to lasso her around the neck, and temporarily secured her to a stout tree one house north of Steadfast Farm. Meanwhile, Ted zipped over in a giant green John Deere tractor, and together we dragged a reluctant Christine (as gently as we could, given her 800 pounds of grunting stress) back to the main paddock and the comfort and safety of her wooly companions. It was an auspicious beginning to the public birth of Vermont Yak Company, and just the first of hundreds of stories in what proved to be to an epic adventure living and working with yaks. Life by the Horns, indeed.
What’s running a yak farm like? Wild indeed. Remembering our years of yakking, memories come flooding back. In describing Vermont yakking through the course of four seasons – spring, summer, fall, winter - I can’t do justice here to the tales that infused our years of work with our yak herd, but in the spirit of taking stock of our wild idea, here are a few observations.
The first hour of yakking at Steadfast Farm - farmer Dave lassoes runaway Christine.
Spring first - season of birth and renewal. Soon enough, as we and the yaks got to know each other, our pasture grass emerged from snowmelt and began to green up for summer. Spring is the time when our newly arrived expectant mamas started dropping their wee ones. Great cause for excitement, as there are few creatures more adorable than a newborn yak. I’ve only met a handful of yakkers who have ever witnessed the actual birthing of a yak calf. Normally very social creatures within their herd, yak mamas become deeply private when their newborns are imminent. We learned that expectant females will sequester themselves away in peaceful places - under a shady copse of trees, or a protected grassy meadow’s far reaches - seeking quiet in the hours before the arrival of their calves, perhaps enjoying a few last moments of solitude before anticipating the hard and nurturing work ahead.
Spring at Vermont Yak Company's Steadfast Farm - a mama and her calf.
We were lucky enough on a few occasions to encounter yak mamas and their newborns within minutes of the “drop” - the calf covered in placental afterbirth, the mama feverishly licking her baby clean in preparation for living a life yaktastic. Most remarkable is how quickly yak calves hit the ground running – lying down, wobbling up, standing steady, and then in motion - leggy, nappy fuzz-balls of slicked back hair and energy. I’ve seen yak calves go from zero to really fast with astonishing speed, helped along by regularly coaching from their mamas, and a constant “toughen up through play” ethos from other herd members. As each spring unfolded, cleaning up the pastures and fence lines after long cold winters, our yak calves reminded us of the future, as our herd grew larger, and our calves kicked up their heels, reminding us with their joyful play to take a break from work and enjoy the moment.
Yak bulls represent a whole different energy than calves in training. “Jet Black,” the patriarch of our Vermont starter herd, was, to this day, perhaps the most impressive yak I have ever witnessed. Grandson of the largest yak bull in all of North America, Jet Black weighed in at well over 1,400 pounds, with a massive set of horns that curved upward over his gigantic head like a giant TV aerial. His natty guard hairs, meanwhile, draped down over his humped flanks almost to the ground, and he moved his gigantic frame across the landscape with a slow swagger that let everyone know he was boss. In motion, he appeared like a hulking hairy hovercraft of a creature, and fortunately, he had a most gentle temperament, mellow to the core, unless challenged by junior bulls with whom he would occasionally spar. Watching Jet Black and our junior bulls hit each other at full tilt with their skulls, swinging their horns around to try and lock and even flip their rivals, leveraging the weight of their massive bodies in a fight, seeking, jujitsu-like, to maneuver their opponents into submission, was always an impressive spectacle. And perhaps Jet Black’s most humorous quality, at least to us guys, was the size of his massive bladder. My son Theron and I once timed him urinating – we swear his pee stream went on for more than three minutes, which, to an 8-year-old boy, is comical beyond compare.
Prepping for biannual YAK RODEO day - Dave, Tim, Susan, and vet Roy.
And then there were our cow mamas, mainstays of our herd and rulers of their hairy roost. John Hooper was correct. Rule #1 at Steadfast Farm? Never turn your back on a yak, especially a mama with a newborn calf. If cows feel like they or their babies are under any sort of threat, they will clearly communicate their ire. First comes the grunting – a series of quick, successive, sharp almost-electronic noises – to let you know they are not happy with the situation. If necessary, they will “bluff charge” you – shaking their heads, whirling their horns, and lowering their bodies at you in a feinting motion – think of a sudden, shaggy “head fake” from an 800-pound ungulate who can run as fast as a horse when motivated. And, if cows feel particularly threatened, they will not hesitate to hit you. I once made the mistake of trying to move Dolores, a particularly aggressive young cow whom we named after Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s “Dolores Umbridge” wicked wizard character. I wanted Dolores and her baby calf to move through a pasture gate too quickly, while talking on the phone to my brother in Tennessee (Yak Rule #2 – “never yak and yak.”) After a ten-minute standoff with Dolores, her repeatedly grunting and bluff charging me, and me brandishing a stick, trying to shoo her and her calf into the next pasture, she decided to run at me full force, hitting me in the butt with her head (I rotated around at the last moment, posterior presented). While I flew through the air, she returned to her calf and walked through the pasture gate in a slow “I showed you, yahoo” amble. Concerned at our phone call suddenly being cut off by my shout of surprise, my brother immediately phoned my wife, who called me, just as I was inspecting the giant gash in my Carhartts (not easy to rip those puppies!) and recovering my phone from a nearby stand of burdock. Lesson learned. While shaken up, I was coming to admire the fierce protective maternal instinct that defined our yak mamas. It was our cows who dictated our herd health – happy, healthy cows raise happy, healthy calves. Our mamas kept our yak herd’s energy strong and vital.
Summer. Our calves grew larger and stronger over the summer months. Occasional hot and humid days, when the temperature soared to over ninety degrees, found our yak herd simply laying down in the shade, pissed off and panting. All of us had a bit more time off from non-yak work during the summer, and used our weekly schedule to hay, clear fence lines (ever growing grass had to be constantly trimmed away from live electric wires), and “rotate” our yaks through our network of fenced in pastures, all of which had specific names. The main pasture, just above the barn, housed our water line, which ran west through the barn to a giant trough which the yaks visited for daily drinking. Above the main area ran a long narrow pasture we dubbed “the upper West Side,” and beyond this parcel, where Ted and Susan’s land abutted Dave’s, we built a pasture we called “the wild wild west.” Directly north of the main pasture, meanwhile, were three long, rectangular parcels we simple called “the north pastures – east, central, west.”
Steadfast Farm yak summer grazing in Vermont's Mad River Valley.
Our daily summer “on farm” schedule found at least one of us working with the yaks every morning and evening. Responsibilities included moving the herd from pasture to pasture, checking gates and repairing fencing, eyeballing the viability of each pasture’s grass stock for rotational reasons, and, most importantly, monitoring herd health and making sure all of our yaks appeared healthy and happy. Every day brought a new and sometime unpredictable adventure. Mornings, the yaks tended to be quiet and content, and moving them usually proved fairly easy. Like many herd species, individual yaks within the herd emerge as leaders, and the herd is prone to follow some of the more assertive animals from pasture to pasture. Similarly, yak herds always have daily stragglers, which might mean an animal is sick, pregnant, low on the totem pole and being bullied by other beasts, or otherwise out of sorts – keeping a close eye on the yaks at the back of the pack proved a vital aspect of daily herd management.
Steadfast Farm pasture yakking - early autumn in Vermont's Mad River Valley.
One of the more dramatic moments of our yakking life occurred during our first summer, as we continued to get to know our new herd. Late afternoon, and we were moving through the yak herd as they came down to the main pasture trough to drink and bed down for the evening. Theron, our six-year-old son, was herding with Kate and me, and made the mistake of turning his back on feisty yak Dolores, who quickly and quietly snuck up behind him. As I turned around, I saw Dolores scoop up Theron with her horns and toss him over her back with a shovel’like toss of her hairy head. I watched in amazement as Theron tumbled through the air, end over end, landing (fortunately) on his rear with a surprised look on his face, more shocked than hurt. “That’s bragging rights,” I told him that night when putting him to bed. “The first member of Vermont Yak Company to get tossed through the air by a yak.”
Autumn. If summer sometimes proved a bit hot for our sexy beasts, fall in Vermont is glorious, as the weather dries out, the nights crisp up, and the leaves on Vermont’s ubiquitous maple trees begin to change to their most glorious colors – reds, yellows, and oranges. With shorter and cooler days, and lengthening colder nights, our pasture grass began to tail off, demanding a closer monitoring of pasture vitality and more rapid rotational grazing prior to moving the yaks down to the main pasture and shutting off grass feeding for the winter. Our yak calves, by now strong and agile, proved themselves ready for the cold ahead, with their constant high energy shenanigans – kicking, running, and butting each other (and us, occasionally!). As our pasture grass died back, we gained comfort from the collective life and strength of a well-fed summer herd. Referring to a lean and mean yak as “fall fattened” is probably a bit of a stretch, but no question that, by October, our yaks were at their prime weight, which made autumn the best time of year to “retire” yaks for winter meat.
The many colors of yakking at Steadfast Farm.
Culling the herd – strategically selecting the best animals for slaughter – initially proved difficult for all of us. Working with yaks every day, we grew deeply attached to them (even the cantankerous ones). Over time, to cope with this unexpected problem, we started conceiving of each yak in our herd as belonging to one of two groups – the “breeders” and the “eaters.” Breeding yaks were at the top of the pyramid – each received a name and the promise of a long, happy, and healthy life as long as they continued to make more yaks. Eating yaks, on the other hand, were short timers, typically steers, older mothers, and bulls no longer able to do the deed. As we grew more savvy in our yakking, we learned not to name incoming meat animals (mostly steer), through purchase - lest we grow too attached to them prior to “retirement.”
In our many years of yakking, I can remember only two occasions where we “short slaughtered” a yak, taking one of our herd to the abattoir in advance of their scheduled time. In one smaller herd purchase early on, we picked up a junior bull named “Thupten,” a 1,200 pound Royal (black and white) with a giant curved horn rack, who had what is best described as a “mean eyed look.” An insecure adolescent, Thupten constantly squared off with herd patriarch Jet Black, who always manhandled Thupten in a clash of horns and hides. In frustration, Thupten took to harassing smaller yaks in our herd, as well as taking out his frustrated teenage ire on us two-leggeds. We coached everyone to be very careful around Thupten, and one day, Ted and Susan were out working in the pasture when Ted caught Thupten actually creeping up behind Susan with intent to harm. “It was like a looney tune,” Ted told me later, “watching a 1,200 pound yak bull tiptoe up behind my wife with murder in his eyes.” We turned Thupten into burger, and he made for good eating. On another occasion, we had to “retire” a beautiful female yak named “Kunga,” whose long wooly hair, soulful eyes, and symmetrical rack made her a particularly gorgeous beast. Alas, she was not able to carry a calf, after two complete seasonal cycles - a “useless eater,” as Henry Kissinger might have dubbed her. Roy Hadden, our local vet who became our “go to” guy for all yak questions, remained convinced that Kunga had a heart-shaped uterus that made carrying a calf challenging. Sending Kunga off to slaughter was particularly painful - such is the way of running a yak herd as a meat business.
"Thupten," our "mean-eyed" junior bull who eventually became burger.
Winter at Steadfast Farm brought frozen temperatures, ice, snow, and quiet, as a blanket of white settled over Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Having stacked 100 giant round bales in the barn over the autumn months, our primary job in winter was twofold – deploy a new fresh-smelling hay bale every third day to keep the yaks well fed, and ensure that our hairy charges had enough fresh running water in their main trough. A “bubbler” at trough bottom kept the water running and prevented freezing fairly reliably, but on frigid mornings, it was not uncommon for the PVC piping carrying the water from house to trough to freeze up, leading to much headache, frustration, and various “de-thawing” procedures, which we never fully mastered. Winter was also a time to fully appreciate yak resilience – as our four hooved and shaggy friends never seemed bothered by the cold, instead, choosing to revel in slowing their activity, hunkering down, and settling in for the winter. Witnessing a full-grown yak easily plowing through a pile of snow is impressive to behold, a testament to their evolutionary chops as a cold weather critter.
Winter also proved hard, as the season proved dark, cold, and sometimes difficult for the occasional sick or weak yak. Ted relayed to me a diary entry he penned about one of the hardest experiences he had putting down one of our animals during that most challenging of the four seasons. Here’s what he sent me:
Dark, deep winter, 5 am, 20 below, time to feed the yaks. Waterline was frozen again. Thankfully, there was enough water in the feeder to last the day. Hopefully, the line would thaw around midday. Time would tell. The current hay bale was frozen, so unwrapping swaths of the hay to lay out in the feeder was arduous. I started to sweat heavily in the process, which made the cold even more apparent once I finished getting hay off the bale as I started to cool down.
As I finished with this morning routine, I heard a faint and weak wailing nearby. and found one of the heifers down in the barn courtyard shaking - clearly headed for death. With an iron grimace, I walked back through the barn to the house to get my gun and loaded three bullets in it. Still grimacing, I returned to the courtyard and spent a minute pointing the barrel at the yak’s head trying different angles, trying to guess which one would be the most effective and quick. She remained shaking uncontrollably. Two bullets brought her to stillness.
Knowing I had to remove her from the pasture immediately, I took off the snowplow from the John Deere and put the grapple bucket on, grabbing her unceremoniously and driving her deep up into the woods as high as the tractor could make, leaving her body off the road 30 feet or so. The next time up in the woods with the next yak I had to put down - this time because of a terrible fight / attack of some sort with another yak when none of us were present - I went to the same location and the first yak’s bones were almost bright white and cleaned to the bone. The coyotes had made quick work of their meal.
Ted’s ruminations serve as a powerful reminder of life and death with our yaks at Steadfast Farm.
Winter fuzzball - yak calf at Vermont Yak Company's Steadfast Farm.
After years of daily yakking – autumn, winter, spring, summer – suddenly (or so it seemed) it was over. Our Vermont Yak Company team decided to sell our yak herd and shut down Steadfast Farm in the winter of 2013. By February, we had found three different buyers for our animals, and by April of that year, all three had arrived with animal trailers – yak buyers from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and northern Vermont – and spirited away our animals. Saying goodbye to our last small group of yaks, standing in the corral together one more time on a cold spring morning, Ted, Susan, Dave, Kate and I had one last VYC group hug, tears streaming down our cheeks. Our yakking adventure had come to any end. It was hard to believe. Why did we decide to sell our yaks? Many reasons – our kids were getting older, members of our team were growing busier with other professional projects, and we realized that to continue on with yaks would mean a dramatic increase in the size and scope of our operation, a prospect the majority of us felt was unworkable. “We didn't lose much money in our five years of work, so it was not a big black hole,” Ted recalled. “But our start-up operation was not sustainable, and would have required more investment than was available or justifiable, so that was a hard spot.” In reflecting on our adventures, Susan, our on-farm manager, described the psychological challenges of living on a farm property with large animals under your care. “I loved the yaks, but was always mentally preoccupied with the animals and what might go wrong,” she remembered. “Weather, health, potential trespassers, broken fences – so many variables running a farm make it hard to sleep at night.”
Now, looking back, I realized what a remarkable opportunity the five of us and our children had together. As we said goodbye to our yak life together, ran the final numbers on our business, and sold off our assets, we began to take stock of what we had learned in our many years of work. While Kate and my “go wild” idea provided the initial impetus to launch Vermont Yak Company, it was our daughter Anneka who first really taught me what living the yakking life meant, and how our work with these remarkable animals transformed us. When it came time for Ani to apply to colleges, she decided to feature her yakking experience in her college essay. Reading her first draft, my jaw dropped as I realized what she was on to – our work with yaks made us different people, in ways we were just beginning to understand. Her final essay, which helped get her accepted as a member of the class of 2021 at Brunswick, Maine’s Bowdoin College, began to make our experiences with yaks more clear for me. In her submission, Ani juxtaposed a single intense experience in her life as a young yakker – getting “body pinned” against the barn by Dolores (yes, the same Dolores that flipped Theron and knocked me over) - with how yakking had shaped her as a kid growing up on a rural Vermont farm. Here’s her essay insights – italics is her flashback, regular font her present.
I walked into the corral of our yak farm, intent on avoiding the manure patties, with a bag of pretzels clutched in my nine-year-old hand. Suddenly, horns pushed me against the barn’s peeling paint. Adrenaline coursed through my body…
A constant of my young life was working on our yak farm. Each night, we’d tromp up to some distant pasture - we called the farthest the “Wild West” - and move our animals down to the barn. All horns, hair, and personality, yaks are the feistiest of bovines, weighing north of 700 pounds each.
Herding them? Well, let’s just say getting fifty strong-willed animals to agree to go through one eight-foot gate took some doing. The positioning tactic that worked yesterday led to a yak deciding to charge my brother today. Exquisitely sensitive to our moods (and moody in their own right), our yaks raced in opposite directions when we dared to be in a hurry. One evening in October, snow fell as we herded - the yaks were blanketed in white by the time they strolled in. The next day? Mud. Even as we walked the same path, every day proved different, an alchemy of us, them, and whatever Mother Nature had to offer.
I screamed as the splinters dug into my back, and I threw the pretzels. Mortal danger notwithstanding, it was the pretzels, oddly, that I worried about first. For what felt like an eternity, I was trapped between a large yak head and the barn’s peeling walls.
I realize now that herding was a new “hard thing” (to use our family terminology) every day, challenging both me and the yaks to always stay in learning mode, to always try to see things through each other’s eyes. In particle physics, an entity is defined through its relationship with another entity. That’s how it was with me and the yaks. As I felt my relationship with the yaks grow, I noticed myself working harder in all aspects of my life. I realized I actually liked the feeling of being in the middle of solving a complex problem, of trying to find the balance or solution among disparate parts. I found unexpected comfort in the discomfort of hard things. The barn was the goal, like the finish line in a race, but my favorite part was getting there.
One of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had occurred after I blacked out at the finish line of a cross country race. I woke up to learn I had been unconscious for 20 minutes - the result of pushing myself past my limit. After that, my biggest challenge as a runner was to put myself together again mentally. When I found myself reliving the traumatic experience of essentially being pinned during that race, I tried to understand my fears. If I managed to herd my disordered thoughts into order, I could coax myself through the rest of the workout.
Finally, the yak backed away. Crying, I scrambled under the electric fence, tiny pinpricks of energy zapping through my body as the wire brushed my back.
Today, herding yaks is an important metaphor for me. From snow to mud, from school policy revisions to community activism, and from exams to races. Hard. Good. Not all about me. Every day. I’ve been told I’m crazy because I don’t give up; because I actually like grinding the hardest of challenges down to size. Every time I face something hard, I go back to the yaks - they told me I wasn’t crazy. The muscle memory of herding reminds me that I can figure out things that are hard, connect to that which is different, and adapt to just about anything.
Despite the post-pinning shock and bruises, I returned to herd the next day. And the next.
Once pinned. Now grounded. I like hard things. I learn from yaks. This is who I am.
Reading it even today brings tears to my eyes. As her father, I was proud of her vision. As a retired farmer who daily misses our yaks, I welled up upon first reading her final essay. Our yaks had been gone for several years, but Ani’s insights helped confirm what I already knew – our work with yaks had transformed who we were. Without romanticizing, I realized that our many years of living with yaks had made us different people – heartier, maybe, tougher, more compassionate toward our fellow creatures and to one another, and more attuned to the complexities of agricultural work on a small piece of pastured grass land. And certainly, our yaks, by way of their own daily example, pushed us to be more resilient humans, a lesson that grew more visible for me in the months and years ahead. “Once pinned. Now grounded. I like hard things. I learn from yaks. This is who I am,” our daughter reminds me. Only now do I appreciate the deeper truth of her words.
Steadfast Farm was but the first chapter in my own yak journey. A few months before before we decided to closed our operation, in an effort to increase the value-added side of our business, I decided to spin off a yak-focused culinary side project with a Vermont friend, a chef and accountant whom I had taught and traveled with while working together at Champlain College. As we trekked along the Great Wall of China, the two of us hatched a plan to launch North America’s first-ever grass-fed yak meat mobile restaurant. We dubbed our mobile yak kitchen the YakItToMe! Mobile BBQ Food Wagon, a big, bold name for a tiny, two-wheeled pull-behind-a-Subaru culinary cart with a grill that barely fit 20 yak burgers at a time. After seeking my Steadfast Farm partners’ permission, I adapted our “Vermont Yak Company” moniker to serve as an umbrella name for our new food cart and what I hoped would become a one-man research organization for all things yak. As we closed Steadfast Farm and took stock of our many years of yakking together, little did I realize that yakking in Vermont was but the first chapter in my yak journey. I was ready to meet other yakkers beyond Vermont who enjoyed living life by the horns. It was time to “go wild” and go global with my yak work.