Photograph by Ben Stechschulte
When you’re 1,200 pounds with a set of horns fit for an oilman’s Cadillac, temperament is everything. As such, there is much to like about Drew, the herd sire at Raven Moon Yaks, a majestic creature who resides down there somewhere beneath his great blanket of black and white fleece, and moves slowly and elegantly around the pasture like a fringed parade float, seeking grass and adulation in the shadow of the low peaks that flank Lake Champlain.
One other thing to know about yaks, say Raven Moon owners Steph Larsen and Noah Weber, is that temperament is hereditary. So Drew’s offspring are in high demand, giving a boost to the breeding operation they brought to the North Country from Montana on the eve of the pandemic.
Yaks, Larsen said, are that rare species of animal fluent in four areas of production: milk, fiber, meat and work. But Raven Moon’s yaks’ purpose is to breed good stock and eventually be the featured attraction of an agritourism business. This seems a slam dunk, since they already generate a sizable crop of double-takes by motorists passing the farm near the hamlet of Westport. “People ask, ‘What kind of cows are those?’” Larsen said. Tibetan nationals living in New England show up at their door, politely asking for a closer look at a scene that reminds them of home.
Despite their utility, yaks are scarcely known in the United States, where cows are king. There are only a few thousand in the country, the larger herds being out West. The animals are docile, but, being herd animals, wary of anything that is slightly different.
Drew has no such reservations, having become accustomed to adoring scratches on his flanks and a forehead seemingly as broad as Lake Champlain itself. If visitors rudely become absorbed in their own conversations, Drew gently nudges newcomers, reminding them that he’s the star of the show.
Larsen said Drew’s traits are often, but not always, passed on to his calves, who jump into laps or flop over for a belly rub. Within a month, Larsen and Weber will know the youngster’s disposition, which is a factor in their placement among potential buyers.
Ranchers may use them in the production of meat—said to be finer than beef—milk or fiber, or at smaller farms they might be taught to carry packs or pull a cart. Either way, Larsen said there is a lot to love and learn about the breed. And the community has responded with open, unconditional arms, something that isn’t always true in more politicized parts of the country. “I was struck by how welcoming everyone was,” she said. “People know how to build communities here.”
Larsen and Weber’s story—and how they came to farm 80 acres in Westport—is as unique as the yaks themselves. Both hailed from Wisconsin, and both had backgrounds in climate and wildlife advocacy, but they didn’t meet until their paths crossed under the big sky of Montana after independent journeys that ranged from the jungles of Rwanda to the halls of the nation’s capital.
As a boy, Weber spent several years in Rwanda, where his parents were saving the mountain gorilla species from extinction by shifting the economics of critical habitat from ranching to a new pursuit that would become known as ecotourism.
For Weber, the title of yak wrangler seems not entirely out of the ordinary, considering a wide and varied career: he’s studied moose, pronghorn and wolves for the Wildlife Conservation Society; tracked the western pine bark beetle; rock guided; worked in the ski industry; and earned a nursing degree from Montana State University.
When he saw the rugged crags of the Northern Rockies he thought he’d found a permanent home. He hadn’t, but he did find a wife.
More accurately, his wife found him. By this time, because of Wisconsin family connections, Larsen knew of Weber, even if they hadn’t yet met. Larsen was living in Montana herself when she got wind that Weber was moving into a new home, and on New Year’s Eve 2012, “I showed up with bowls, spoons and a pot of beef stew,” Larsen said.
Much like Weber, Larsen had been driven to ever more remote locales. Before there was a phenomenon known as farm-to-school there was Steph Larsen, who had a master’s in food and agricultural advocacy, and had promoted sustainable farming in Latin America, and later became a lobbyist in Washington DC, urging that healthy, locally raised food be incorporated into cafeteria menus.
“I didn’t love Washington,” she said. So she left for Nebraska, working for the Center for Rural Affairs, but not before seeding the 2008 Farm Bill with language that would help the farm-to-school movement take off.
In Montana, she became a digital organizer for the Sierra Club, and by the time she and Weber had spent two weeks together, it was apparent that the relationship was going places as well. But she said there were conditions. “We were coming home from a skiing trip and I said there are two things I want—a farm and children.”
“Those were the longest 15 seconds of my life,” Larsen said.
Weber said he’d wanted children, but hadn’t considered a farm—it made sense though, given his background in biology, and they found 20 acres where they started raising Scottish Highland cattle. But on 20 acres they could never be as cost-effective as the big beef ranchers, so they started looking for a niche.
The yaks, their versatility and their relative scarcity, provided that niche, but by the mid-teens another problem was arriving on the scene: western wildfires, fed by savage droughts. Smoke from the great conflagrations turned Montana’s celebrated big sky the color of milk, and houses a few hundred yards away disappeared in the haze. “It was starting to get absurd,” Weber said.
Ranchers needed multiple backup plans for their animals on the chance of approaching flames. Smoke was present much of the year and irritated sensitive respiratory systems.
“When I heard our daughter coughing in bed, I knew we had to do something,” Weber said. His parents, who live in Johnsburg, mentioned that the Adirondacks wasn’t a bad spot, and in 2018 the couple rented a house in Whallonsburg, having never set foot in Essex County before.
Impressed with the local agricultural scene, they began to make plans for the animals they had temporarily left behind. In the tradition of the Adirondack stealth real estate market, they learned of a socially conscious seller with a big farmhouse and 80 acres who was looking for a specific sort of buyer that would be mindful of preservation, and respectful of the land.
The Adirondack Mountains were not as high as those out West, but Weber and Larsen felt sheltered from climatic catastrophes. “Here the irrigation falls from the sky,” Weber said.
Adirondack winters don’t faze an animal used to 40 below, and those massive lungs that serve them well at high altitudes are also useful in dispelling the heat of summer. And if the majestic creatures have warmed to the Adirondacks, the feeling is mutual, with more opportunities for up-close experiences on the way.
“We want to build a community that loves yaks,” Larsen said.
Learn more at (240) 406-YAKS or www.ravenmoonyaks.com.