Field Trip: Visit the Game Birds at Beaver Creek Farm
Beaver Creek Farm raises quail, pheasant and other lean and flavorful game birds on five acres of land in Varina, Virginia, and another ten acres in King William. It’s a small family farm raising something really tasty and unique. Beaver Creek Farm supplies many of the top chefs in DC, even catching the attention of the Washington Post. Owner Spencer Moore has been running the quail farm for 25 years, ever since he was an Eagle Scout. Now his sister and brother-in-law, Donnie and Veronica Oakley, also help out. Spencer would rather be spending time outdoors with wife Melanie and three-year-old daughter, Vivien, than talk about what he does. But we got him to open up about why he loves game birds.
“I’m an avid hunter, my dad got me into hunting,” Spencer says. In Boy Scouts I used to read Boy’s Life magazine, and they had these little ads in the back, ‘make money raising quail.’ I always kind of wanted to do that.”
Spencer’s parents had a neighbor who raised quail for game preserves, and teenaged Spencer joined in. “We raised them in pens, then we would catch them and take them out to shooting preserves, for people training their dogs.” Spencer went to Radford and VCU to earn a degree in orthodontics, but he quit lab tech work in his mid-20s to focus on the quail farm.
“I love animals,” he says. “Hunting, being outside. It’s very peaceful. You can go there and do your work, be by yourself.”
Today, at age 43, Spencer still raises game birds for hunting, but he has a growing business in “meat birds” for chefs. He supplies quail, partridge, pheasants and quail eggs. Conventionally-raised game birds live in cages and eat corn and soy feed, pretty much like commercial chickens. But Beaver Creek partridge and pheasants fly around tall, netted flight pens, and eat native grains and insects. The quail, being ground birds, live in a large protected space indoors. They don’t plump up as quickly as birds on conventional farms, so they cost a little more. But their active, healthy lifestyle creates a flavor that chefs appreciate.
“The chef who cooks with game birds is more in tune with the reality of farming,” says Javier Arze. Javier owns Huntsman Specialty Game, which distributes Spencer’s birds. “With local products you have the occasional hiccups where the farmer couldn’t get birds processed that week because he was plowing snow. These things don’t happen on big farms.”
Javier says that chefs who cook game birds are also more skilled. “They want to do the work,” he says. “They don’t want birds that come in exactly the same size, all deboned and vacuum packed. They are looking for local products that are unique and responsibly farmed, with high quality and taste.”
Beaver Creek hatches about 300 new quail each week, and also processes another batch of 300 eight-week-old birds. At any given moment during winter’s game season, Spencer has 5000 pheasant and 5000 partridge running around the farm.
“What’s hardest is keeping them alive. There are a hundred things that could happen to them,” Spencer says. “You have to regulate the temperatures for the quail. During storms, we have to run down there and turn on the generators. Once the gas company let the gas run out for the heater and we lost a couple thousand birds.”
“Sometimes we lose them because a hawk, owl or raccoon will scare them and they’ll run into something. Predators are a big challenge too. It’s a hundred things or more, and every day it’s something different. Twenty something years we’ve been doing this and we’re still learning every day.”