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Harvesting Alaska: Ranchers try to meet demand for yak meat

By Heather Hintze 8:26 AM August 8, 2016
GLENNALLEN –

Hand-raised yaks, not in the Himalayas, but the heart of Alaska.

“Trina!” Barbara Fithian called out. She knows almost every one of her animals at the Circle F Ranch by name.

“Woebegone gets fed with a bottle because his mom didn’t have enough milk,” she explained.

Another steer, Drifter, is special to the Fithians.

“He’s a small yak, kind of a runt,” Bobby said. “He’s trained to pack and to ride. He’s such a treasure to us he’ll never be a meat animal.”

Barbara and her husband Bobby Fithian are hunting guides who wanted to find a sustainable use for their hundreds of acres outside Glennallen.

Hours of research led them to yaks. While cattle eat three percent of their body weight, yaks only eat one percent. In the winter, that saves the Fithians money when they have to feed supplemental hay. Yaks can also withstand the blistering cold, 40 below zero temperatures of the interior.

Barbara said it’s also one of the healthiest red meats in the world, leaner than chicken. Yak ranching just seemed to make sense to the Fithians as more people push for farm to table food.

“More than just eating local they want to eat something they know has had a good life,” she said.

Yaks are a new meat industry in Alaska. The Circle F Ranch is now up to 100 head; Bobby said there 300 yaks in the state altogether and only 6,000 in the entire United States.

“The problem is once you go yak, you never go back — but there’s never enough yak,” he laughed.

There are more than 30 babies on the ranch this year. When the males are two years old, they’ll go to market.

“The taste is phenomenal. It’s very beef-like a more delicate and sweet-flavored meat,” Barbara described.

The Fithians keep a freezer full of meat in their gift shop at their ranch about 15 miles up the Edgerton Highway. Despite a higher price than beef — $28 a pound for sirloin — they can barely keep it in stock.

Barbara said she knew once people started to see the health benefits of yak it would be sought after but she had no idea the demand would be what it is.

“We literally are sold out of any meat we can produce for the next two or three year easy,” Barbara said.

Most of that meat ends up on the grills at David McCarthy’s restaurants. The chef-turned-restaurateur owns four eateries in Denali and just opened the 49th State Brewing Company in Anchorage where yak is featured in several ways on the menu.

“I’m happy to serve it here in Anchorage and I hope people enjoy it and I think it’s important they understand where their food comes from,” he said.

For McCarthy, the protein is a perfect fit for people who want to try something that sounds out of the ordinary but has a familiar flavor profile, similar to beef.

He plans to put the whole animal to good use, cooking up everything from the heart and tail to the testicles.

“We’re going to try out for this fall to make a version of ossobuco out of yak. So we’re taking these traditional dishes and substitute something that’s been raised here in Alaska,” McCarthy explained.

Locally raised food comes at a cost; the 49th State yak burger is $25. For local diners like Lane and Shannon Mailet, who ordered the yak quesadilla, it’s worth it.

“That’s just the price you have to pay for good food close to home,” Lane said.

McCarthy said he hopes by making yak more approachable by putting it in quesadillas or fajitas more people will try it. His goal is to get customers to love it so there’s more of a demand that will ultimately benefit the ranchers.

“Yes, it is more expensive but the reality is is that the quality is there and that money goes full circle in our state which is the ultimate benefit of why we serve that yak meat,” he said.

Back at the ranch, Bobby said raising yaks isn’t just a way to make a living.

“It’s an amazing experience to be able to share the ranch with animals and grandchildren,” he said, while watching his 10-year-old granddaughter Esther approach a week-old calf.

Barbara said it’s about a better life for their family and the bushy brutes.

“It’s hard to not love a yak,” she laughed. “When they catch your heart and they hold on.”

KTVA 11′s Heather Hintze can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter

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Harvesting Alaska is a new featured series exploring all the ways Alaskans live off the land — from growing and foraging to fishing and crafting. We hope you’ll join us on our journey and share how you harvest Alaska. Share your recipes and ideas for upcoming articles.

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