WARNER, N.H. - In this tiny town, about 30 minutes northwest of Manchester, the steep and winding driveway off the main road easily could be missed. It looks at first like a typical New England scene. There's a farmhouse and a farm store, a few chickens in a coop, goats, and a large fenced-in field filled with grazing - wait, are those buffalo?
Yankee Farmer's Market is full of surprises, from the shaggy behemoths snorting in the yard to the unorthodox offerings inside the shop. Free-range chickens and pastured pork might be expected, but where else can a devoted locavore find elk, red deer, or ostrich? Proprietors Brian and Keira Farmer have turned what started as a small buffalo farm into a regional sales hub for farmers raising distinctive game meats and a year-round destination for adventurous cooks.
The New Hampshire natives began raising buffalo while still in high school, selling low-fat, robustly-flavored burgers, chili, and cheesesteaks at state fairs and festivals. When customers clamored to buy the healthy, delicious meat to cook at home, the couple started a retail business in their dining room. Eventually, Keira Farmer had enough of keeping a freezer where her sideboard should be, and the store was born. They named it Yankee Farmer's Market - a play on their name, but also a description of what they hoped to achieve.
"It was supposed to be like a farmers' market, where you can get all-natural, good quality products,'' says Keira Farmer.
The store sells meats from local farms that meet the couple's standards, providing a much-needed outlet for small specialty growers who don't have the time or space to offer a single steak or rack of ribs.
"We're selling meat every single day,'' she says. "A lot of these other farmers, this is a secondary job for them, a lot of them aren't full time at this.''
Interest in buffalo, a lean but rich-tasting red meat, has skyrocketed during the past few years, and the Farmers say they hope other game meats will capture the public's imagination. Their festival booth tempts new customers with tastes of venison sausage and ostrich and elk burgers, winning skeptics who have unfortunate memories of the taste of hunted game, which can be tough and strong-flavored.
"I'm not poaching animals out in the woods,'' says Keira Farmer. "These are all animals that have been very consistently fed on farms, they're fed top-quality feed, the flavor of the meat is very similar to buffalo, honestly. It's not gamey at all.''
Some people are reluctant, then tell her, "It's really good.''
Gary Remillard of Riverdale Farm in nearby Hillsborough, a supplier of grass- and grain-fed Rocky Mountain elk to the Farmers' store, has seen enthusiasm for his products steadily grow.
"For the last four years, my wife, Louise, has been telling me I have a very expensive hobby,'' he says. "Actually, this year, we may break even.''
Remillard makes some direct sales to restaurants and consumers, but Yankee Farmer's Market is essential to his business.
"They can take 10 animals at a time,'' he says.
Keira Farmer says she sees the market for elk and deer today similar to where buffalo was when she and her husband started their business more than a decade ago: small, but growing fast. Ostrich remains more of a novelty item. But the appeal to home cooks is the same - healthy, locally-grown food that tastes great. Despite the economy, the biggest problem the Farmers have is keeping their freezers thoroughly stocked.
Her devoted clientele continue to buy the makings for venison stew, ostrich meatballs, and buffalo kebabs, putting a nutritious and exotic spin on traditional favorites.
"They want to create healthy meals for their family,'' she says. "So they're still, thankfully, coming to visit.''
Yankee Farmer's Market, 360 Route 103 East, Warner, N.H., 603-456-2833, yankeefarmersmarket.stores.yahoo.net