Two years ago a Valentine’s Day blizzard swept through Middlebury, leaving behind a wall of snow.
For Hank Dimuzio, this was a problem.
His eight-foot high wire fences, designed to keep his herd of fallow deer inside, now rose a stunted four feet to Dimuzio’s shoulder as the snow created an icy stepladder to the other side. Dimuzio was astonished to find most of his herd huddled under their shelter near the top of his farm. But others were stranded on the outskirts of the far paddock where a grove of evergreens provided shelter.
Here, they could have easily bounded over the fence, yet they waited patiently for three days while Dimuzio tunneled a path to the animals. By that time had eaten any type of vegetation in sight leaving most of the evergreens barkless. Nevertheless, all of the animals made it back to the shelter unscathed.
Most farmers take daily upsets by variables like weather and the economy in stride; yet, most farmers do not breed deer native to Europe and the Middle East, and most farmers are not usually full-time emergency room doctors.
But Dimuzio, owner and operator of LedgeEnd Farm on East Munger Street in Middlebury, is a man that ploughs his own path through life. In addition to delivering babies and stitching wounds Dimuzio tends to 500 deer he breeds for venison and hunting stock.
Dimuzio didn’t always know he was going to raise fallow deer, but farming was always around the corner. He was born in Philadelphia in 1950 and lived downtown between a Plymouth Chrysler dealership and an A&P Supermarket in the last agricultural part of Philadelphia County. He lived on three quarters of an acre. Just two blocks from his house Dimuzio could walk into the beautiful 2,000-acre Fairmount Park. But as with most small rural neighborhoods, quaint buildings turned into antique shops and the rest was paved over.
At 17 he left and went to school at Williams College where he double majored in music and biology. He spent most of his time in Vermont and said to himself, “Well, I’m going to end up in Vermont.” But first he went on to do research at Harvard for immunology and set off to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he spoke fluent Spanish and raised rabbits behind the walls of the suburban colony where he lived.
“We ate the bad ones and sold the pretty ones,” said Dimuzio. “I tried to farm as best I could.”
Dimuzio then specialized in emergency medicine when the field was just emerging because he’s “someone who likes to do things differently.” Emergency medicine was appealing because it was fast-paced and Dimuzio is admittedly an adrenaline junky. He’s been working as an emergency room physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center for about 25 years.
Dimuzio bought his farm in 1991 and acquired his first herd in 1995 — the herd did not come quietly. The farmers who were selling the herd of 54 deer to Dimuzio tried to run the animals to the trailer that was waiting to take them to Dimuzio’s farm, when the deer spooked and sprang into the Addison County wilderness. Dimuzio’s first herd did not come by trailer that day. Instead, it took Dimuzio nine months to hunt down and capture every single deer from nearby woods and bring them to his farm.
The following summer, he sold his first package of venison to the chef at Roland’s Place in New Haven and continues to sell to the same chef today. From there he began to sell to local restaurants as well as private sales.
“Fallow deer are also considered by chefs to be some of the finest venison in the world,” Dimuzio said. “It’s a very fine grain and has a very mild flavor. It also lends itself to a lot of different preparations and I think that’s what chefs like about it.”
It wasn’t until 1988 that fallow deer were legalized after the state began to look for ways to help farmers diversify. Unlike cows and other large animals, fallow deer have a low impact on the land and are browsers and partial grazers, which mean they can use land that would otherwise be unusable for crop growth or pasture land. The deer eat almost anything except Jimson Weed, which plagues the paddocks and prevents Dimuzio from going organic. Fallow deer are not just used for meat but also for their “velvet,” the soft skin on growing antlers, as well as the entire antler in its pre-calcified stage. The velvet is crushed into powder to be ingested and is a mainstay of traditional Chinese medicine. It is thought to hold a variety of health maintenance and health remedy properties.
Fallow deer are the typical “petting zoo” deer. They come in white, brown and dark chocolate colors and wear spots year round. They are small, standing anywhere from 90 to 160 cm in height — about the size of a domesticated goat. They have long heads with dished black noses and large beautiful eyes. The bucks are a bit larger than the does with broad palmated antlers. Dimuzio breeds a mixture of two subspecies, the Mesopotamian and the European fallow deer. The Mesopotamian variety is usually found in Iraq and Iran, but most were hunted to extinction. Fallow deer have been semi-domesticated since Roman times and can be seen in most paintings depicting the hunt.
“The reason why I chose fallow was for one, they’re just extremely pretty, they’re a very gorgeous animal,” Dimuzio said while staring at his grazing herd in late afternoon. “I love their antler, it’s so different from any other deer species. The other thing is they … have proved to be very healthy, very little disease.”
Dimuzio’s property is a long piece of 230-acre land lined by tall fences. His barn is the old Gerald Sawyer dairy barn; the barn’s design was once thought innovative for its time. In the far field nearest to the village, speckled does graze in large herds, some with legs doubled under their bodies, napping in the sun, round bellies full with grass. Long lanes connect the pastures with the upper part of the property near East Munger Street where a herd of about two-year-old potential breeding bucks rest under a lean-to. Here, Dimuzio explains, is where he will judge which bucks will go on to join the herd of breeders and who will be culled for venison. The deer that are not growing fast enough or are too small, or who are skittish and are not producing young will ultimately be sold for meat.
The deer are not slaughtered after they reach 38 months old. Males are only slaughtered until October. At this point, mating season is full swing and the bucks become more difficult to handle. Does can be slaughtered between October and January. Dimuzio explained that he has a unique breeding program. By breeding large well-tempered animals together, Dimuzio has animals that are easier to handle and produce a larger amount of meat.
And though Dimuzio does not support the idea of fallow deer as pets, he said it has been impossible to not get attached to a few over the years.
Among his breeders are about half a dozen large bucks. There is James Blond and Eight Ball who is chocolate in color, Ralph Lauren who is very social, and Blue Boy who is more Mesopotamian than anyone else in the herd. Blue Boy has been on the farm for eight years and will live out his life as a breeder. And though Blue Boy is older and larger, he is bullied by Ralph Lauren who is smaller in size but larger in personality — he is also bold enough to eat an apple out of Dimuzio’s mouth just like his old pet buck Mr. Rogers who is buried on a knoll at the far end of one of the paddocks.
“There are certainly animals you get attached to,” Dimuzio said. “Since I have enough of them, I’m able to keep a few around as pets. But for the most part, they’re numbers and that’s how they stay.”