Ahead Of Its Time
Home Grown, Low-Stress Agriculture
Alex loved the Musk Ox. It may sound strange, but it’s true.
When I met Alex, one of the first things he shared with me was his love of this animal. He collected sculptures of musk oxen made by Canadian and Innuit artists. It is a beautiful collection.
He especially liked way the males would protect the females and the young by putting them in the center of an outward facing circle of males. This idea of male bonding and the strength of male relationships speaks so much to what Alex really admired.
For many years Alex and I knew of this Musk Ox Farm. On our way to Alaska, we made it a point to stop in and visit this special place. Alex was also proud to be someone that helped bring attention to under-represented beings… and this was certainly one of them.
I hope you enjoy this wonderful interview with Mark Austin, the Executive Director of the Musk Ox Farm in Plamer, Alaska.
Who are the founders of the Musk Ox Farm?
Our founder was a gentleman by the name of John Jerome Teal , Jr.. He was an anthropologist who was profoundly interested in peoples scattered around the far north. He wished to establish a geographically appropriate form of agriculture where it had never existed before. He envisioned domesticating musk oxen in order to provide access to home-grown agriculture to parts of the world that were realizing a growing reliance on cash dollars in areas where those same dollars were very hard to come by. He was decades ahead of his time in his commitment to pursue gentle and low-stress agriculture when the rest of the world was striving to automate the feedlots.
“I know Alex loved the way that they take care of their own, standing in a circle strongest heads out-I wish humanity could embrace this against some of the challenges that we, as a species, face today.”
—Mark Austin, Executive Director, The Musk Ox Farm
Could you tell us when and why The Farm was created?
John Teal made his first foray into the Canadian arctic in 1954. He was given permission to capture musk ox calves, but was under strict orders that no animal should be harmed, firearms were not permitted even for self defense.
It still sounds invasive, but consider the norm of the time was to slaughter the adults and take the calves. Mr. Teal took those calves to his farm in Huntington Center, Vermont.
The next decade was spent asking and answering the most difficult questions:
- Can musk oxen survive in captivity?
- Can they be successfully bred in captivity?
- Would they become tractable with work?
- Would it be possible to harvest their valuable qiviut (the “why” of this animal) in captivity?
After a decade the answer to all three of these questions was yes.
From there he established farms in Norway, Canada, and the one in Fairbanks, Alaska where we trace our roots back to. Note: the two other farms were short lived mostly due to conflicts with the governments in the countries where he was trying to work.
What is its mission?
MODC promotes gentle musk ox husbandry, qiviut production and education to the public
A Love for Musk Oxen
Mark, how did you become involved with the Musk Ox Farm?
Such a short question, such a long answer!!
I was starting a business in Palmer in the mid 1990s, it was a cafe´, music venue, and arty sorta place-the timing was perfect! In the back of the space was a loveseat, a couple of chairs, and bookshelves it was a lovely quiet place to hang out and relax. There was this guy that would come in every day, sip coffee and write in his journal. Aaron was no regular Joe. He was (is) 6’ 10”, perfectly proportioned god of a man. He had played pro basketball, even had a run in Hollywood. Of course, this guy had all the charisma to go along with the life that he had experienced so far, we became quick friends… Aaron Garland is the nephew of John Teal.
Aaron was up here for about a year helping his cousin, Lansing (son of founder) to run the farm. Through Aaron, and eventually Lans, I spent a ton of time on the farm helping with everything from fence building, combing, calving, or whatever was going on here at the time. My wife and I were married on the property. I was deeply connected to the farm, animals, and mission from the beginning. Good fortune found Kim and I on a boat sailing for about 5 years. During that time we sold the business and crossed the Pacific eventually selling our boat in Brisbane, Australia.
After our time on the boat we opted to try a completely different chapter for awhile, we settled in Silver City, New Mexico. With a partner I began designing and building net-zero homes that elegantly utilized the very best in passive solar, photovoltaic, and solar thermal.
We sourced materials locally and built a couple of homes that would have qualified as LEEDS platinum if they had been residential rating at that time. Our daughter was born in 2008, the housing bubble burst, and during a visit to Alaska in 2009 I learned that the farm had nearly completely fallen apart and was months away from being closed after all these years, I offered to help…..here I am Jean, over 10 years later. The photo is of Mark Austin, Executive Director at The Musk Ox Farm.
Mark, what do you personally spend most of your time doing for the Musk Ox Farm?
For better or for worse, I spend most of my time running the business of the farm-parked behind a desk. I’ll help move animals from time-to-time or whenever something bigger comes up. I love those days when I can go out with farm staff on foot to “bring in the bulls” to be weighed, incredible touchstone of why I’m here. Sometimes I will work with a film crew, people within the visitor industry, or others when my ED perspective is beneficial beyond the capable care of my teammates.
Tell us about the Musk Ox Farm…its current programs and its future goals?
Global pandemic aside, the farm is thriving! Not only do we have the happiest and healthiest herd ever, the business of the nonprofit is solid and growing. I have a board member who has been here since the mid 1960s and about 5 years ago he stated, “the farm has never been better.” Today, it is so much better than it was even then! Yours and Alex’s belief in us played a paramount role in this!
I have a terrific staff with all kinds of pent up energy and ready to institute new programs for when we get back to “normal.” We’ve learned so much over the past year taking the farm to people who we always relied upon to come to us, this will most definitely continue. Right before the pandemic settled in we cut the ribbon on a most beautiful, brand new, and renovated building-you would hardly recognize it!
After years of hard work, planning and fund raising we pulled the iconic gambrel roof off the old barn, razed the failing structure underneath, pulled the roof back to square and plumb, and built out a few thousand square feet of beautiful museum, office, gift shop space, along with public restrooms.
The hayloft above had all the insulation and outer skin placed atop the old roof so that from inside the cathedral-like trusses provide a space that looks like it did 85 years ago when FDR was trying to bring a New Deal agricultural hub to Alaska. This amazingly inspirational learning space will host groups of all ages to learn about musk oxen, gentle husbandry, and fiber arts. We will gather there for intimate concerts, stimulating lectures, and maybe even a whimsical movie night. A spacious deck looks out across the herd and pastures towards the majestic Chugach mountains to our south, absolutely incredible!
We were stopped at the starting line with the coronavirus, it is time to get back to making all this potential come to fruition!
Majesty, Strength, Tenacity
Can you give an example of a wonderful experience that happened at the Musk Ox Farm?
Wow!! So many.
The look of awe on a young person’s face when they see a musk ox for the first time?
The birth of a calf?
The building described above becoming a reality?
Georgeanne turning 27 years old-four years older than the oldest documented musk ox we have ever heard of?
A sea of happy community members enjoying a farm-to-table feast at our fabulously successful Oxtoberfest?
Hearing from people around the world who have shared that a video of a frolicking calf helped them through the despair of the last year?
Knowledge that our membership is standing at our side, not only during the great days, but during the rough ones as well?
I’ve told members for years that the financial support is amazing, but it’s knowing that they are there, by our sides entrusting us to carry out this work, no matter the challenges means the world, especially when nothing seems to be working out easily. I’m sorry Jean, there is no one “thing,” it would be like trying to tell you what amazes me most about my daughter!
What inspires you about the Musk Ox Farm…can you share a specific story?
Again, wow. It all starts with these animals.
They wandered the tundra with sabre toothed tigers and wooly mammoths through ice ages and these guys walked out the other side without them. They are majestic, tough beyond words, individually funny with personalities that you have to get to know to appreciate. There is nowhere to run on the tundra so they will face down any challenge, I feel like (I hope!) that I share a bit of their tenacity!
I know Alex loved the way that they take care of their own, standing in a circle strongest heads out-I wish humanity could embrace this against some of the challenges that we, as a species, face today.
What’s the most challenging aspect of running a Musk Ox Farm?
Well, again, global pandemics aside, I think that every nonprofit wonders where the money will come from.
When I got here we were broke, couldn’t make payroll, couldn’t hardly pay a utility bill. It started with a lot of slashing unnecessary items, begging for items that could be donated, and rebuilding a business plan that had become very arthritic. I described the early days as trying to shove new revenue streams, proverbial legs, under the wobbly one legged stool that I inherited. As the nonprofit has stabilized over the years we have come to employ professional staff that had never existed before, and it shows throughout all of our work!
In the Before Times we were able to rely on about 80% of our operating funds coming from earned income and about 20% coming from events and the generous support (again, a million thank yous!!) of our members. During the past year we were able to quadruple online sales, double the income from our generous members, and, believe it or not, grow our membership! A place like this will always throw up unforeseen challenges; water issues, dry pastures, long-cold springs, the whimsy of the public, or any of the multitudes of minutiae that haunt every single day-keeping it all going with a stiff upper lip can sometimes be the hardest.
“Qiviut (kiv’-ee-ute) is the soft down under-wool produced by musk oxen. Qiviut is eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and is one of nature’s finest fibers with a micron count (diameter) that is approximately thirty percent more fine (skinnier!) than the finest cashmere and is not itchy or scratchy like wool.”
Please consider making a donation to the Musk Ox Ranch today on their website.
Is there anything that you wish more people knew about this organization and how can people get involved?
I believe that, aside from the work that we do here, how we do it is critical to understand. Gentle low-stress agriculture takes time and resources beyond what most other husbandry operations would be willing to spend. As a nonprofit we can focus entirely on quality without the burden of quantity.
Our dedication to gentle and low-stress husbandry is a shining example of how agriculture can work. Our methods not only serve to address our ethics, they pay forward in spades in near absent need for veterinary care, preservation of facilities, ease of harvesting the qiviut fiber, and unnecessary wear and tear on staff.
There may be other musk oxen in captivity, but there is no one else on the planet doing what we are doing here, perhaps there is a reason for that.
By JEAN TREBEK
Jean is a Professional Religious Science Practitioner, Reiki Master and Sound Healer. She grew up on Long Island, NY, and now lives in Los Angeles. She has two wonderful adult children, Matthew and Emily, with her beloved late husband, Alex. Jean enjoys taking long walks, watching movies, and traveling. She is very grateful for her family, friends, Luna (the dog) and good coffee.
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