QDMA Hunting Heritage Programs Manager Hank Forester and I just wrapped up our third year of Field to Fork in Athens, Ga. and it was one of the best yet. Over the past few years we have been evaluating and fine tuning the program to better fit the needs of an adult food-focused audience interested in learning to hunt. This year we guided 15 participants, ages 25 to 70, through the process of becoming a hunter to provide them with the ability to source their own high-quality protein. Throughout the first two years we had participants from all walks of life, and this year was no different. There were professors, graduate students, organic farmers, construction workers, and chefs, all brought together by their desire to further their connection with nature and where their food comes from.
In previous articles we have described in detail how we recruited participants from the Athens Farmers Market with an offering of venison, provided classroom and field training, took them on a crossbow deer hunt, and hosted a culinary social afterwards. Given that we have already broken down these steps for you, I want to steer this article more towards an in-depth look at the effect of Field to Fork and the expansion of the program.
Since getting a head start from the Kentucky Field to Fork program and gathering up partners (the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Nation Wild Turkey Federation, QDMA, and Georgia DNR) to form a little different approach for our program in Athens, we have caused quite the stir. The Athens version has now been featured across many media outlets including podcasts, radio shows, national magazines, and local newspapers. With the help of this exposure, the Field to Fork program is beginning to reshape the way the hunting community thinks about targeted recruitment and has likely had a wide-reaching ripple effect within local food-focused communities.
Let’s start with what we are seeing within the hunting community and industry. The Athens Branch of QDMA has been an integral part of Field to Fork the past two years by assisting with setup, training, and, most importantly, serving as mentors for the participants. Several of the Branch volunteers have made telling comments about the impact the program has had on them.
David Kidd stated, in reference to serving as a mentor last year, “I think this was the best season I’ve ever had, and I didn’t even harvest a deer.” All of the mentors in the program agree that their experiences are extremely rewarding and many have commented that it changed their outlook on who might become as avid about hunting as they are. We are seeing a similar shift in attitudes across volunteers and the general base of hunters as they become involved in or read about Field to Fork.
Similarly, the hunting industry is starting to buy in and recognize that these new audiences may be an important market segment in the future. Earlier this year the National Shooting Sports Foundation awarded QDMA funding to document Field to Fork to help expand the model and illustrate to industry partners the motivations behind the participants.
The ripple effect within the food-focused community does stem from some of the local publications, but mainly comes from program participants sharing their experiences within their social groups and professional circles. We have numerous examples of this, but I would just like to share a couple. Edwin Pierre Louis is a graduate student who participated in the program last year. Edwin harvested his first deer with a crossbow during a follow-up hunt, proceeded to purchase a rifle, harvested four more deer, took three new people hunting with him, and shared venison with all of his lab mates at the University of Georgia — all within his first deer season!
Brandon White is a racecar engineer who went through the program in the same cohort as Edwin. Brandon also got hooked, purchased his own equipment, and harvested three deer! He has two small children who he plans to introduce to hunting once they’re older, and he consistently talks about how rewarding it is to put all-natural protein on his family’s table. Edwin and Brandon both came back to help with Field to Fork as mentors this year, with Brandon even offering up property for the program.
You may be thinking, those seem like outliers or extreme examples. However, we have many stories similar to those above when dealing with adults getting into hunting for the first time. In fact, 80 percent of Field to Fork participants hunted on their own within the first year after participating in the program. We recently further surveyed a few past participants and realized that the venison harvested through Field to Fork has been shared with hundreds of non-hunters. While it’s hard to quantify the effect these people are having on their communities, I think it is safe to say that through the sharing of their experiences and harvest, Field to Fork graduates are having a substantial positive impact on the way hunting is viewed within their circles and likely generating interest in hunting among their peers.
With all of these positive outcomes and the hunting community taking notice, we are in the process of expanding Field to Fork. The Georgia program just finished its third year, and the Kentucky program continues as well, but this year QDMA Branches and volunteers are launching Field to Fork in eight additional states: Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Similar to the Athens program, a key to success with these new areas will be partnerships. The QDMA volunteers in the new states are also partnering with other local and national conservation organizations.
I truly believe that Field to Fork has the potential to have a lasting impact on securing the future of hunting and our natural resources. There is something about the authenticity of the message that brings non-hunters and hunters together focusing on common ground rather than what divides us. With programs like this and help from hunters like yourselves, we can ensure that hunting is viewed as an activity for everyone who loves the outdoors or has a passion for natural food; an activity that transcends all societal, political, and religious boundaries, allowing participants to form a deeper connection with each other and their surrounding natural world.
Do your part for hunting and conservation this year: mentor a new hunter, whether it is through a program like Field to Fork or on your own. Interested in starting a Field to Fork in your area? Contact Hank Forester.
Photos courtesy of Pale Horse Productions.