Broken Arrow Ranch
by Randy Lankford
Exotic Game from the Texas Hill Country
Texas is known for its whitetail deer hunting. What isn’t commonly known is that whitetail deer meat can’t be sold.
Traditionally, the only way to get venison has been to either shoot it yourself or sweet talk another hunter into sharing his or her harvest. As America’s taste for wild game increases, the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram is filling the gap between supply and demand that’s not being bridged by generous outdoorsmen.
Founded in 1983 by Mike Hughes, the Broken Arrow Ranch harvests, processes and delivers exotic game meat to more than 1,000 high-end restaurants around the country. Its products are also available to consumers via its website www.brokenarrow.com.
"Technically all the whitetails in Texas belong to the state," explains Chris Hughes, president of the Broken Arrow and son of the company founder. "That’s why you can’t sell the meat. There are some exemptions for trophy ranches but whitetails are a native species so no one really owns them." Hughes says the notion of owning a whitetail deer just because it’s on your land is the same as thinking you own a mockingbird that lands on your fence.
"Whitetails are a state regulated animal with a specific hunting season and bag limit. The exotic animals you see running around are non-native species so there are no regulations as far as hunting season and number of animals you can harvest." Those exotic animals are the Broken Arrow’s inventory.
The Broken Arrow harvested approximately 2,000 exotic animals last year. Most of them were axis deer. Nilgai (South Texas) antelope were the other big crop. "We also have sika deer, some fallow deer and some blackbuck antelope," Hughes adds.
Since there’s no specified hunting season for the animals the Broken Arrow processes, harvests go on year round. "Ranchers will identify when they need to thin their herd and they’ll contact us. We have a portable processing facility that we’ll take to the ranch and then we’ll drive the property with one of the owner’s representatives and locate the herd. They’ll tell us which ones they want us to harvest and we’ll collect those animals with a single long-range shot from a suppressed rifle. That’s less stressful for the animal. And anytime you can reduce the stress on the animal and prevent if from releasing adrenaline and endorphins into its system, that’s going to produce better meat. And, in our opinion, it’s a much more humane way of collecting these animals."
An inspector from the Texas Health Department also accompanies the harvest crew, insuring that the animals are processed hygienically. It’s a quality control step the Broken Arrow takes voluntarily. "These animals aren’t regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) like beef is. We invite an inspector along with us because we guarantee our product. We want to make sure it’s handled properly."
Mike Hughes started the company after a career as a deep sea diver. "When Dad retired he owned a 700 acre ranch here in the Hill Country. He’d been to Europe and seen that venison and other game meat was much more popular there than it was in the United States, at least in the 70’s and 80’s. He knew there was an abundance of exotic game here in Texas and he put two and two together. He’s never been one to just sit around so he started the Broken Arrow Ranch. Twenty-three years later, it’s still going strong."
Chris Hughes, with a business degree from Wake Forest, joined the family business less than a year ago. He’s looking for ways to expand the consumer side of the business. "The growth has been kind of flat for the last five years or so. And that’s because it’s found a nice, comfortable niche and been maintaining that.
"I’m looking for new ways to grow. Restaurants are about 90 percent of our business. One way we want to increase the consumer side of the business is by emphasizing the health aspects of our meat. Since these are free range animals, there are no growth hormones or antibiotics in the meat. There are people who are allergic to all the chemicals in beef. A lot of them have just given up on red meat and we’re finding that they can eat our venison because it’s more natural."
Hughes adds that it’s easy to tell venison from beef. "For one thing, our meat is extremely low in fat. There’s no marbling in our venison. Our meat has probably about one-eighth the fat of beef and one-third the calories. When we make venison sausage, we have to add fat because it won’t hold together. That’s how lean it is."
Since these are free range animals, there are no growth hormones or antibiotics in the meat. And there’s a flavor difference too. Hughes explains that a lot of people don’t know what good venison tastes like. "They’ve had venison that wasn’t handled properly, that turned out gamey. That comes back to how it was harvested and how it was processed. There’s a big difference between the venison your neighbor brings home and the meat we sell. The taste also depends on the species. When you compare the venison from whitetail deer, elk, mule deer, most people prefer axis deer. It has a mild flavor and good texture."
One tip Hughes gives is to never cook venison past medium. "It’s more delicate than beef. You can cook it to well done but it’s going to get tough. We recommend medium rare for the best flavor and juiciness."
Broken Arrow ages its meat for three to four weeks before freezing it. All deliveries are made by overnight carriers in Styrofoam coolers packed with frozen gelpacks. Hughes guarantees that deliveries will arrive in top condition. "We’ve used distributors in the past and it just didn’t work out. We’re very proud of the quality of our meat. Once we give up control of the product, we give up control of the quality and we’re just not willing to do that. That’s why our venison is only available at our website."
Herb Crusted Venison Medallions
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, mashed
- 2 teaspoons fresh cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 3 pounds venison tenderloin, trimmed
- Salt and pepper to taste