Ahead of the Game

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

Hunting Preserve Helps Md. Farm Bag Extra Income

QUEEN ANNE, Md. — Chris Dean has given new meaning to value-added operations on the farm that has been in his family for four generations.

His grandfather, Donald Dean Sr., took a small family farm and enlarged it until he and his son, Donnie Jr., were farming 1,000 acres. The youngest Dean farms 140 acres of that himself. And he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn from his father and grandfather.

Back in the 1980s, in and around raising corn, wheat and soybeans on his own farm, Donnie Jr. worked as a hunting guide for the Tryon family, who had a large goose hunting guide service in the days when geese were plentiful.

When Maryland had a 90-day season and three-bird limit, and the North Atlantic Flyway was filled with geese, it was a profitable sideline. Goose hunting has fallen off a bit now that the season is 45 to 50 days and hunters can only take two birds.

Canada geese also do not fly this far south in the large numbers that characterized the ’80s, Chris said, noting it may be evidence of climate change or of cycles that we just don’t have enough historical knowledge to appreciate.

After a time, Donnie Jr. started a small hunting operation on his own farm, Mason Branch Hunting Preserve, and he raised quail, which were released into suitable habitat for sportsmen to come and try their luck. He started the preserve to fill in the days when he wasn’t tending his crops or guiding goose hunters.

Chris started hunting with his father when he was 12 and took to it like a duck to water. Duck hunting is still his passion, but he enjoys all bird hunting and he’s always up at 5 a.m. during waterfowl season.

The hunting preserve was a small operation before Chris graduated from Salisbury University in 2011 and his father put him in charge. Since then, he he has expanded the operation.

“The process starts in June when we start planning our hunting habitat for the farm,” Chris said. “We first contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and set up the fields we use as regulated shooting areas. We make three or four long strips through the middle of the field and plant them with sorghum. Then the remainder of the field is then planted with our cash crop. After that cash crop is harvested in September, hunting season begins Oct. 1.”

The preserve has trails along the outside of the fields and through the woods, as well, he said.

“When people book a hunt they have two choices: Give me a price you want to work with and allow me to put together a mixed bag of whatever birds, or mix and match your own birds with the prices that I have come up with. This allows the hunter to customize the hunt to his or her needs,” Chris said. “On the day of the hunt I will go down the strips, through the woods, and release the birds. When the hunters arrive, I guide them on their hunt, through the trails with my dogs. If they have their own dogs I tell them where the birds are and let them guide themselves.”

This is the second hunting season he has managed on the farm, and he has quadrupled the number of quail raised. They get started in June with day-old quail shipped in from a hatchery down the road, he said. They get them under brooders and raise them until they are flight ready. One pen holds 1,500 and the other holds 2,500.

“We also have pheasants that we raise in an outdoor pen — an old corn crib that we had on the farm for about 100 years that I put a net over,” he said. “We keep them under propane brooders for six weeks and then they are old enough to be released outside. Once outside, they really thrive.”

Dean raised 300 pheasants last year and expects to do 600 this year.

“We plant sorghum out there in those pens in June and by September it provides cover and feed. You want to put as little stress on the birds as possible, the less the better,” he said. “Raising a flight-ready bird is different from raising a meat bird. You want a strong healthy bird with muscle so it can fly.”

On a hunting preserve, your goal is a natural population of quail. The lack of quail is a manmade problem, he said.

Getting rid of hedgerows made some things easier on the farmer but it removed wildlife habitat, too. Quail hunting almost died out.

“We give those guys who used to quail hunt a sanctuary to come and run their dogs and have a good day,” Chris said. “They can show their sons and daughters what quail hunting used to be.”

Because of the decline of the sport, many hunters who used to keep bird dogs found it was no longer cost-effective. Hunters who are considering a trip to Mason Branch often ask him if he runs dogs. He does.

His pack of hunters includes a German shorthair named Chaps, an English Setter named Beau and an English Pointer named Cloud who is 10 months old and already showing a lot of promise.

But his favorite dog is Midnight, Night for short, a black English lab “that does it all.” She is a flush dog and a retriever.

“English labs are not bred to be big and have a huge head. Some people call them miniature labs but they are not miniatures, just smaller labs and very athletic. They are very loyal and perform the task that you need them to do,” Dean said.

The dogs are key to his operation. Since the birds are raised by humans, they are not afraid of people. “But they react to the dog and his bark.” Dean trains his dogs on the preserve.

Waterfowl season has come to a close for 2013, but wild turkey season starts April 18 and runs through May. Hunters are welcome.

When he isn’t hunting with a party, Chris provides others services that hunters need and want, such as custom processing of deer, butchering and creating custom cuts. He also makes three varieties of deer sausage, including a smoked kielbasa.

He sells deer corn, too. A 60-pound bag of corn goes for $12. He fills the bags by hand and it is hard work, but it makes use of a product they grow and also gives him an opportunity to introduce hunters to the game preserve.

Dean still buys “chukars” — a type of quail native to the Midwest that is smaller than a pheasant but bigger than indigenous quail — and Hungarian partridge to release on the property for hunters. The vendor is right down the road, so he’s keeping the business local.

He said the hunts are really full-service adventures.

“We’re going to take you out in the morning and, after the hunt, we’re going to cook your lunch.” Hunters enjoy geese, ducks, pheasants, even squirrel. “I do all the cooking,” he said.

Dean honed his cooking skills in college, while learning to stretch his food allowance over an entire week, he said. He’s even persuaded his girlfriend to eat game that he has prepared.

But he claims that the secret of cooking game is in the cast-iron skillets and old tin pots he and his dad have collected at auction sales. He is particularly proud of a roasting pan with a vented lid that he uses to roast goose in an old propane oven in the lodge.

He prepares the goose by adding his “special” seasoning (Season All, black pepper and garlic salt), puts onions and garlic in the pan around the goose, places the bird breast-side down and adds water up to the edge of the breast. He covers it and cooks it slowly, at 275 to 300 F, while they are in the field. “The breast meat falls right off the bird,” he said.

Dean set up a Facebook page and website to advertise his business. He also grows crops on the 140 acres that he tends himself. He rents 100 acres from his grandfather to grow corn, soybeans and wheat. He rotates cover crops to take advantage of federal and state incentives, but also to increase the yields on his cropland. He also keeps a vegetable garden.

Dean said he has always kept a small garden, but now he does about an acre of produce to keep his family supplied with fresh produce throughout the summer. He would also like to do a small-scale community supported agriculture operation and figures he could supply a family with vegetables from June through September for $600 to $700 a year.

In addition to heirloom tomatoes, he grows sweet corn, edamame, bush beans, pole beans, radishes, red skin potatoes, Vidalia onions and red onions, lettuces, spinach, kale, collards and rutabaga to feed three generations of his family. He said his parents pay for the seed and he does all the work.

Donald Sr. also took 40 acres out of the Conservation Reserve Program — a voluntary program that pays farmers by the acre to keep land out of production — that he and Chris now farm in partnership. Donald Sr. provides the equipment and the good advice.

And, of course, his father gave him the hunting preserve. Chris said he is tremendously grateful for the opportunity to do something he loves and make a living at it, instead of pounding the pavement for a job he wouldn’t enjoy half as much.

“My family has provided me the opportunity to try to make it on my own and not have to job hunt in this economy,” he said.

He has made some impressive changes at the preserve, but he isn’t resting on his laurels. He said he would like to offer sporting clays next year with a small range in the woods — five stations with different situations.

“It’s fun, but it also excellent practice for the hunter,” he said, noting that some of his clients have expressed an interest in having that additional amenity.

Chris also offers a cleaning service for hunters.

“We do that while they eat lunch,” he said. Originally he did it all himself, but “I’ve found that there’s no shame in asking for help. I have a local kid and a few folks who hunt with us who help with cleaning the birds, taking phone calls, selling corn, etc.”

That’s important because he leaves his cellphone at home when he hunts.

For more information, or to reserve space at a future hunt, contact Chris Dean at 410-924-3545. If you get his voice mail, he’s probably hunting.<\c> Photos courtesy of Chris Dean



Midnight and Jake are on the job at Mason Branch Hunting Preserve.




Richard Smith went out to shoot quail but it looks like this one is fighting back.




From left, Terry Krug, Ryan Ludemann, Bill Griffin, Pat Krug and Kevin Hendley pose with Chris Dean after a successful hunt.




Day-old quail are brooded in the converted corn crib on the farm.




From left, Ahmad Hamidi, Eric DeSoto, Billy Poss and Jason Edwards show off their take on the last day of the season.








Chris Dean and Midnight examine their take at Mason Branch Hunting Preserve in Queen Anne, Md.

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