A Hunt for the Freshest Food Leads Into Loudoun's Forests
Thursday, December 4, 2008
In the crackling predawn cold, brothers Oliver and Christopher Turner and their friend Jason Arwine have gathered outside a western Loudoun County woodland near Upperville to embark on their annual Thanksgiving turkey hunt.
The morning has been touch-and-go; Chris Turner was nearly undone by allergies triggered by a borrowed wool hat and is suffering the indignity of an orange synthetic hat topped by a pompom. The three step softly into the woods in search of their "white whale," a wily old tom turkey that has eluded them three years running.
The Turners, who grew up in Middleburg, are relatively new to hunting and were not raised with a hunting tradition. They are part of a small but growing faction of "locavores" -- people drawn to eating locally grown products -- who have turned to hunting as a way to harvest all-natural food of the most basic kind.
Oliver Turner, 32, and his parents own and operate the Virginia Chutney Co. in Rappahannock County, and from that vantage point he has closely watched the rising popularity of locally produced food. He lives in Marshall and began hunting occasionally a few years ago.
"When I'm handing out samples at a store, customers tell me they like putting a face to the product. I get the same feeling from seeing the scraggly face of a turkey that I'll be eating later," he says, laughing.
Chris Turner, 29, is a Boston surgeon who assuages his homesickness with holiday immersions into Virginia's rural heritage. He experimented briefly with vegetarianism after reading Michael Pollan's bestseller "In Defense of Food," a manifesto against processed-food diets. Now he brews beer and hard cider in his apartment and sees ethical parallels between hunting and sustainable agriculture.
"I hunt because I like the idea of harvesting your own food from the wild in a traditional way," he says, adding that one day he would like to keep a cow and chickens.
Hunting is a rare pastime in the urban and suburban communities where the eat-local movement has thrived, which might explain why the topic does not come up more often in discussions among locavores. Even in rural areas, the number of hunters is dwindling.
In Loudoun, the number of hunting licenses issued dropped from 13,305 in 2000 to 9,852 last year. Bruce Lemmert, a state conservation police officer, has watched the number of hunters decline over his 20-year career in Loudoun. "It's harder and harder to find places to hunt in Loudoun County, so these guys are going elsewhere to do their hunting," he said, attributing the loss of hunting grounds to the county's residential and commercial development.
But in the past few years, he said, he has seen the local food movement bring newcomers to the discipline. "I've talked to several people in the past year who said that was their reason for giving hunting a try," he said.
Rich Landers, another conservation police officer who works in Loudoun, agreed that wild game has attracted a following among local food enthusiasts who appreciate its leanness and strong taste as well as its natural origins. "That's why I hunt," Landers said. "It's definitely an emerging trend." Hunters also play a crucial role in control of Loudoun's deer population, he added, noting that deer can cause thousands of dollars in damage to farms and wineries.
Locavores contend that by purchasing locally produced food, they are supporting local businesses, reducing the emissions caused by long-distance transport of food and rejecting "factory farming" practices, such as raising animals in inhumane conditions and giving them antibiotics and growth hormones. Increasingly, they see their values as being in tune with those of hunters, many of whom say they feel a strong obligation to cleanly kill the animals they pursue and to help maintain a healthy population of game species.
According to this view, both the locavore and the hunter have a food ethos that celebrates humane harvest, traditional processes and sustainable methods. Both prize freshness, flavor and a back-to-the-land philosophy.
Bonnie Azab Powell, founder of Ethicurean.com, a blog dedicated to discussing food ethics, said she has noticed more people making this connection. "There is a growing awareness among locavores of hunting as an option," she said, citing a spike of interest in hunting in the past couple of years among friends and in comments posted on locavore blogs.
Powell, who lives in Oakland, Calif., was a vegetarian for 30 years. She reintroduced meat to her diet about 2004, when she was able to find sources of beef raised and slaughtered in ways that she considered humane. Now she manages a community-supported agriculture group that she said supplies humanely raised and harvested beef, pork and poultry to about 70 members and has a waiting list of 200.
Still an opponent of hunting for sport, Powell has become a supporter of hunting for food. People in the latter category "take responsibility for the food they eat," she said. "They have respect for the lives they are taking, and they are taking part in an ecosystem." She said she is considering a turkey hunting trip soon.
Don Maxwell, 77, a Fauquier County resident, was a locavore long before the term was coined. He began hunting at age 10 with his brothers. His family, like many in the area at the time, hunted out of economic necessity. Now, at his home in Paris, he tends two vegetable gardens, raises chickens and hunts game by choice. "I hunt for quality, not quantity," he said. "And there are no growth hormones." He has also noticed a decrease in land available for hunting.
Unfortunately for Chris and Oliver Turner, a beautiful Thanksgiving sunrise revealed a forest singularly empty of turkeys. That afternoon, they would find solace in a Thanksgiving feast for which their family wisely procured a vacuum-sealed, plucked oven roaster. It might have lacked the virtues of a wild turkey, but it did have the distinct advantage of being, as the saying goes, "a bird in the hand."