Unique livestock catching attention in Westport
By Holly Riddle
When Steph Larsen and Noah Weber decided to move away from Montana and relocate their yak farm, the couple was looking for an area of the United States that would be least impacted by climate change over the coming years. Montana’s fire season of 2017 left the couple eager for safer pastures and, in 2018, they landed in the Adirondacks.
“Giving that we were leaving Montana because of climate change, we looked at the map and said, where is climate change going to have the least amount of impact? The Northeast is fairly well-positioned and land prices are affordable. Our 20 acres and small house in Montana cost the same as 80 acres and our big house here in the Adirondacks. And, honestly, the town of Essex was a big draw for us. Essex Farm has created an environment where there are lots of small, sustainable agriculture-interested folks in the area, and those are our people,” says Larsen, a geographer by training with a background in agricultural policy and a career in the nonprofit sector.
Larsen currently works for Sierra Club and Weber is an educator at Lakeside School in Essex County, but when they’re not working or spending time with family, they’re pouring their passion into RavenMoon Farm, home to 16 yaks, including 12 adults and four calves.
When talking to the husband-wife duo, it’s clear that the yak love runs deep, but how does one get into an industry that’s so small that Weber and Larsen estimate that they, with their fewer than 20 yaks, are the largest yak operation in the Northeast? For Weber and Larsen, it started with cattle.
The couple’s farm in Montana initially raised Scottish Highland cattle, says Weber. “They were great, but we were also at the mercy of the going rates for beef. We started looking at some various options. I’d come across yaks just by reading about various forms of farming and what people were doing with animals.” He quickly recognized the many benefits of these hardy animals, which offer some of the best qualities of cattle, but without the extreme market saturation. The fiber, milk and meat are all able to be sold, but the yaks are also frequently used as pack animals.
“Our first two sales in New York were to a woman who’s going to use them as stock animals to pull plows. She’s very interested in working them, which is fantastic because… they’re really smart animals… They’re really amazing and really fun to be around. Once we spent time with them, we [realized] these are phenomenal creatures,” says Weber.
As for Larsen and Weber, they currently are breeding, raising and selling their yaks for other farmers to use as breeding stock or as working animals. Their fondness for the livestock makes using the animals as a meat source mostly unappealing and collecting the yak milk requires a time commitment that neither can currently afford. However, they are collecting the yak fiber and are gauging regional wool shops’ interest in the higher-quality product, which they liken to cashmere or angora.
According to Grace Ott, agriculture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County, yaks are relatively new to the U.S. She cites an article from 2019 that estimates that there were about 5,000 total yaks in the country at that time, and she doesn’t know of any other yak farms in the region.
“I would imagine they would do fine in this area as they do better in cooler climates, but it would be a very niche market,” she said.
As is the case with most businesses, RavenMoon Farm felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially last year, as Larsen and Weber juggled maintaining the farm with working from home and taking care of their two young children. At one point, Weber suffered a back injury, leaving Larsen to care for the livestock mostly on her own for six weeks.
“That was really challenging for me to juggle kid care, my full-time job and suddenly doing all of the farm work. That was really hard…” she says.
“There were a lot of 2 a.m. nights and then waking up at 7 again,” adds Weber. Still, he says, “We had a really good year of sales this year… That was reassuring, that there was interest and that we’re doing a good thing. It’s fantastic to know we now have animals that are with folks and going to be living good, long lives.”
The yaks also provided new social opportunities for the couple over the last year (masked and from a safe distance, of course, they assure), as it’s nothing out of the ordinary for the yaks to cause passersby to pull up short in the middle of the road. The yaks also connected Weber and Larsen with the regional Tibetan population.
“People stop on the highway often…” Weber says. “Spring is when we started meeting quite a few Tibetans and they let others in their community know [about the yaks]. That was really powerful for us, in the middle of such change… It brought people to our home that we didn’t invite but that we were so happy to welcome… The yaks put a smile on our faces and on others’ faces.”
He describes the yaks as “big dogs with horns,” saying “We have several that, when I go out to the pasture, they’ll put their heads up against me and I’ll scratch them between the horns. They remind us of our old English Sheepdog, always by your side. I think there’s… something special here. You watch people stop, kind of hazardously in traffic [to look at the yaks] and you go, ‘Okay, we need to manage that situation and have people park in a safe spot, but people are loving it.’ They’re different, but they’re really special.”
“Yaks are something people are kind of familiar with, but they’re also really unique. The word ‘yak’ people know, but they’ve never seen one and it’s exciting for me to be able to share that with people.”— Steph Larsen
Through 2021, the two expect to continue the farm’s calving program and expect eight to 10 calves this year, which they aim to halter train and prepare for lives with new owners.
Learn more about RavenMoon Farm and get in touch with Larsen and Weber on the RavenMoon Farm Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/RavenMoonFarm/.
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