Unexpected partners: Farmers markets, land trusts and the changing face of hunting

Two decades ago, it was almost unthinkable for hook-and-bullet organization such as the NWTF to enlist the help of farmers markets and nonhunting land trusts as recruitment tools. In the last several years, however, nongovernmental organizations and state agencies across the country are implementing Field to Fork classes with these and other nontraditional partners on a regular basis.

What has happened to prompt this shift? And, more importantly, why is this important for the hunting community?

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

As with other big questions, history often helps us understand why things happen the way they do. What Charles Darwin discovered in the Galapagos Islands nearly 200 years ago remains as true — and relevant — today as it was then. Species must adapt in order to survive. The same goes for ideas and institutions.

As hunters make up a progressively smaller percentage of the population in the United States —roughly 10% 50 years ago and about 5% now — their survival depends more and more on social relevance. The fact that hunting, at its core, is about food, really matters to many people.

“It’s simple,” said Keith Warnke, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Administrator for the Wisconsin DNR. “Hunting as a means of harvesting high-quality local protein is a message that resonates.”

Not only does that message resonate, it has impressive numbers behind it. The vast majority of Americans — 75% or more — approve of food as a motivation for hunting. The number is considerably lower when hunters are motivated by sport or securing a trophy animal.

This link to food opens the door to a whole new group of hunters: those looking to harvest their own protein close to home and in an ethical way. That hunting dollars fund the lion’s share of conservation efforts makes hunting a value-added proposition to these newbies.

Field to Fork centers tend to spring up near urban areas with a vibrant food culture and college towns nearby. A short list includes Minneapolis, Iowa City, Madison and Lansing across the Midwest; Burlington and Vermont in New England; Athens, Columbia and Austin in the South; Portland and many locations across California in the West.

"Working with food co-ops on Field to Fork events is critical for reaching a broader audience,” said Matthew DiBona, NWTF regional biologist for New England. “NWTF worked with Vermont Fish and Wildlife and Rooted in Vermont (www.vtfarmtoplate.com) to host a Field to Fork event in 2019 at the Onion River Co-op[SD1]  (citymarket.coop in Burlington, Vermont). Using their storefront as the physical location for the event not only gave us fantastic facilities to prepare the dishes, but it also helped raise awareness of wild game as a food source amongst a demographic that might not be otherwise be connected to hunting.”

BACK TO THE LAND

Field to Fork classes, like any hunting class, require quality habitats where first-time hunters can take to the woods in the company of experienced mentors and try their hand. Interestingly, NWTF’s long history of working with land trusts (like the Nature Conservancy) on habitat restoration provides another opportunity for reaching this new group of hunters. Properties belonging to these trusted “brands” often receive little or no hunting pressure.

Reducing deer populations can also help land management and biodiversity goals, as well as providing a happy jumping-off point for new hunters.

While the Nature Conservancy is one of the larger nonconsumptive organizations with which the NWTF partners, it is hardly the only one. Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Mississippi Valley Conservancy are a few others.

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

It’s heartening to see that, going forward, securing food and helping to manage land are two ideas that resonate with new hunters and the general public. Just as wildlife must explore new habitats to survive, it’s essential for the hunting community to continually adapt and expand its reach.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that food and conservation are also two of the oldest reasons for hunting. It’s no coincidence, then, that they are also core NWTF values.

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