Chris Hughes of Broken Arrow Ranch
In a world overrun by tasty, four-legged creatures, Chris Hughes of Broken Arrow Ranch has solved the issue of getting wild-caught and field harvested meats directly to consumers. Broken Arrow Ranch is able to bring high-quality, truly wild free-range venison, antelope, and wild boar by partnering with ranchers in Central and South Texas as part of a population management program. The result? They help maintain sustainable animal populations, and the wild game meat they produce is… wait for it… legendary. Today we discuss Chris Hughes’ field harvesting process, population managements, and the Michelin star restaurants that source their meats from Broken Arrow Ranch.
Chris Hughes of Broken Arrow Ranch Interview
Thanks for taking some time for us today, Chris. Can you tell us about yourself and how you came to founding Broken Arrow Ranch?
I’m the second generation in this family business. Broken Arrow Ranch was founded by my father, Mike Hughes, in 1983. He recognized that there was an overpopulation of exotic deer and antelope in Texas but there was no reliable, inspected source of venison from the US.
As he researched this opportunity he found that there were no laws allowing or, more importantly, prohibiting the sale of meat from these animals. So he worked with various state and federal agencies to develop a framework and write the appropriate laws.
The next challenge was how to harvest the animals humanely without stressing them. Since we were dealing with wild animals that were not used to human interaction trapping them for transport to a fixed slaughterhouse would overly stress the animals and ruin the quality of the meat.
To solve this issue Mike pioneered the mobile-processing concept and built the first government-approved mobile unit. Venison is still the heart of our business but over the years we have also begun offering wild boar meat, quail from our Diamond H Ranch property, and Dorper lamb from a co-op of family ranchers nearby.
Talk to us about your humane field harvesting process. What exactly does this entail?
Our mobile processing unit is the key that allows us to harvest these wild animals in a humane, stress-free manner under full government inspection. We collaborate with area ranchers to harvest deer and antelope on their property as a part of their population management programs.
This model allows a win-win-win-win situation where the animals live naturally until humanely harvested, sustainable animal populations are maintained for the land, the ranchers receive a repeatable income source, and we are able to harvest wild game meat of the highest quality.
The harvest begins by transporting a mobile trailer-mounted processing facility to a ranch along with our harvest crew and a government meat inspector. Instead of taking the animals to a processing plant, we take the inspector and facilities to the animals. Our harvest crew then searches the ranch for appropriate animals to harvest.
Each animal is individually harvested in its natural environment from long-range using a sound-suppressed rifle. This technique eliminates stress on the animal that would negatively impact meat quality.
An additional step we take to ensure the quality of our meat is to electro-stimulate all animals within minutes of harvesting using a custom built device. The electro-stimulation causes muscle contractions that ensure a thorough bleed out, milder tasting venison, and increased tenderness.
The harvested animal is then transported back to our portable processing facility that has been set up on the ranch. Within an hour of harvesting the animal, it is eviscerated, skinned by hand, and placed into the trailer’s cooler for transportation back to our fixed facilities in Ingram.
It should be noted that field-harvesting puts us at the mercy of Mother Nature, just like our ancestors. After 15 hours in the field, we may have a successful harvest or we may leave with nothing if the animals do not present themselves. There is a lot of uncertainty with this method, but it is what you must do to harvest truly wild animals while maintaining meat quality.
What makes Broken Arrow Ranch meats better and why?
I think it’s a lot of little details that add up to make better meat. No-stress harvests, electrostimulation, and aging the meat 3-4 weeks on the bone gets us started down the right path. The care our experienced butchers put into each cut and the meticulous packing for safe delivery certainly also help enhance our customers’ experience.
We personally take the meat through every step from harvest through shipping instead of having it pass through multiple companies as many other suppliers must do. As a small company, this allows us to charge each employee with fanatically protecting and improving our meat’s quality at every step.
Population management is always a serious issue. How do you track and manage wild populations?
In some places, game surveys are used to track populations but mainly it’s self-regulating. The ranchers aren’t obligated to let us harvest on their property so if they don’t see enough animals they won’t let us come. On our side, it’s not efficient for us to visit a property with a low animal population. If we go to a property and there aren’t many animals then we’ll note that and not go back until the population has grown.
How did you get introduced into the Paleo community? What are some thoughts on the community and how it pertains to Broken Arrow?
I often get asked whether wild game meats are a fad. I like to tell them that wild game meats have been popular for a lot longer than farmed meats! For this reason, many in the Paleo community find us at some point in their research. We were first introduced to the Paleo diet concept in the late 1980s when Dr. Boyd Eaton contacted us for nutritional data. Others in the paleo community have contacted us with questions or comments over the years.
I always enjoy helping people research their food sources even if we don’t wind up being a match for their needs. The important part of the interaction is that they’re learning and I’m usually learning something too. The Paleo community deserves a lot of credit for their passion to better understand food sources and suppliers.
Can you talk about some of the places that exclusively use your meats, ie. restaurants? Who is your biggest customer?
We don’t have any restaurant customers who use ONLY our meats but we do have some that use a lot! We sell to about 1,000 different restaurants a year and it’s everything from Michelin starred to mom-and-pop places. The common link is a chef or owner who truly values the quality and wholesomeness of their food sources. I keep a “thank you” list of recent customers on our website: www.brokenarrowranch.com/recent-customers. I encourage everyone to check it out and visit them for a meal.
Where can I find cooking instructions and recipes for wild game?
A good start is www.brokenarrowranch.com/recipes. Wild game meats can be substituted for conventional meats in most of the recipes you already use. Just remember that game meats usually have less fat so a little tweaking may be required.
Tender cuts should be cooked quickly and not past medium-rare. Ground cuts can have moisture added by mixing with vegetables or adding more fat. Braised dishes and stews always benefit by cooking the day before and letting the flavors meld overnight.
What’s your shipping radius? How do you package shipments?
We ship our meats anywhere within the USA. The vacuum-packaged meat is packed in an insulated cooler with frozen gel packs and sent overnight to your doorstep.
How many lbs of game meat do you usually catch in a day?
Our harvest results vary considerably from day to day due to weather, rancher schedules, and whether or not the animals present themselves. It can be zero pounds or 8,000 lbs. This year we expect to harvest about 100,000 lbs of deer and antelope, 135,000 lbs of wild boar, 35,000 lbs of Dorper lamb, and 550,000 quail.
What’s on your table tonight?
A chef friend and his family are visiting the ranch tonight so I’ll be entertaining. We’ll build a fire in the pit to grill some wild boar sausage and quail. From the garden, I’ll use squash, cucumbers and my first ripe tomato of the year. I’m pretty excited about that tomato. All that sounds pretty paleo. Maybe my diet’s stronger than I thought…
Okay, I get that your humane harvesting requires a single headshot, which greatly reduces the stress and thus affects the flavor. Who is this guy with this amazing accuracy, what does he shoot with, and does he offer lessons?
Everybody wants to be the shooter! Actually, I have two amazing shooters – Dustin and Caleb. For most harvests, we use a .308 caliber Remington 700 with an AWC suppressor. It’s a very reliable and well-proven system still used by many military snipers. Most of our shots are at distances of 50 – 200 yards so we’re well within the rifle’s capabilities. No lessons offered right now but that may be something to explore for slower days on the ranch.
Any words of wisdom for venison and wild boar meat lovers?
It’s the world’s greatest meat from both a flavor and health standpoint. Of course, I love to see the orders come in at Broken Arrow Ranch but if that isn’t the right choice for you then there are still other options to consider. Go hunting and reconnect with nature.
There’s a primal satisfaction to eating something you’ve harvested, be it an animal or vegetable. If hunting’s not in your plans then make some hunter friends who can get you wild game meat. They can’t legally sell you meat but some mutually beneficial arrangement can always be worked out. Whatever you do, please support this two-million-year-old fad and make wild game meats a part of your diet.
Chris Hughes’ Broken Arrow Ranch is Paleo Approved by the Paleo Foundation.
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