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Reindeer something of an obsession for Fairbanks man

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Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010 3:55 am | Updated: 1:33 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Thoughts of reindeer are not limited to the Christmas season for George Aguiar. In fact, the creatures are pretty much a year-round, 24/7 obsession.

Reindeer are the focus of Aguiar’s job and graduate work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And when he gets home each night, he has his own reindeer to care for. A research coordinator for the Reindeer Research Program, Aguiar is working on a master’s degree in natural resources management and geography. His research focuses on how meat quality is affected by freezing and storage time.

But to call Aguiar, 32, single-minded wouldn’t be right. He plays guitar, skijors, gardens, runs and rides snowmachines, motorcycles and mountain bikes.

Aguiar grew up in Turlock, Calif., on a large dairy farm where his father was the herdsman. Aguiar raised his own cows, goats, rabbits and a pig. His family arrived in California from the Azores Islands, and Aguiar didn’t learn to speak English untill he was 5. “Our family traditions had to do with providing food,” Aguiar said. “Once a year we would have a big feast and kill a pig and make sausage. There would be dances and wine.”

His childhood brought him to realize the importance of food production. “We have to get food to the table, and it doesn’t come from a grocery store,” he said.

Aguiar decided at a young age he wanted to incorporate his ethics and ideas into how animals should be treated. “You know the end result but still you have respect for the animal,” he said.

While Aguair was attending a community college in California, he hauled cattle and worked in the veal industry. In 2002, he headed to Alaska to try something new, enrolling in the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and persistently applying to work for the Reindeer Research Program until he got hired.

Although Aguiar had never seen a reindeer (“except on TV”), he quickly learned they were suitable livestock for Alaska. He credits RRP manager, Greg Finstad, his supervisor and adviser, with teaching him an enormous amount about reindeer.

The more Aguiar worked with the animals the more determined he became to raise his own. Because of the Reindeer Act of 1937, this was harder than it appeared. Only Alaska Natives can own Alaska reindeer. So Aguiar and a friend tackled it another way; they went to Canada. Aguiar’s buddy took care of the truck and trailer and Aguiar signed up for the paperwork.

“The more I investigated the harder it seemed to be,” he said. He wrote, called and e-mailed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. There were permits and health certificates and vaccines to take care of. After a nearly endless nightmare of bureaucratic entanglements, the time finally arrived in August 2009 when the two men drove to British Columbia to pick up 11 deer.

Things went smoothly until they got to the checkpoint to re-enter Alaska. After driving 20 hours the guys were anxious to get home and let the animals out of the trailer, but the border guard at Northway had other ideas.

“I was cool and confident,” Aguiar recalled. “I had done all the paperwork.”

Told they could not bring animals into the country without representation by a customs broker, the fledgling reindeer producers had to backtrack down the road a bit and spend all night faxing paperwork to a total stranger. Just when they were considering giving up and perhaps even slaughtering the animals to try to recoup some of their investment, the process finally clicked and they got home.

Aguiar built an eight-foot enclosure for his six reindeer on his Goldstream Valley property, but he was nervous they might run off or stray dogs would attack them. He spent the first few days nearly camped out in the pens.

As for the agonizing trip, Aguiar said he doesn’t think he could do it again but he’s glad he made the effort one time. “I’ll work with what I have,” he said. Two calves were born this year and he is looking forward to more next spring. His one regret about the trip is he wishes he’d bought more animals while he was there.

Eventually Aguiar hopes to build up his ranchette of four acres to be able to sell breeding stock and “crank out meat animals.” He also would like to get a little piece of the agritourism business.

Aguiar enjoys reindeer meat, especially when it is thinly sliced and cooked in butter with salt and pepper. “It’s just simple,” he said. “Hot and fast is the way I like it.” He touts research that reindeer meat is high in protein and low in fat, but cautions that chefs should not overcook it.

In addition to his reindeer herd, Aguiar raises rabbits, chickens and turkeys. “There’s something about raising animals and being connected to your food source,” Aguiar said. “There is something fulfilling in that.”

One of his greatest challenges is the high cost of animal feed. He purchases locally grown brome hay, a pelleted mixed ration feed, barley and oats. In the summer, the reindeer diet is supplemented with fireweed and willow that Aguiar gathers from roadsides. The deer eat twice as much in the summer as they do in winter, a key factor in their near-perfect adaptation to Alaska’s harsh environment. “Traditional livestock generally eat more to cope with cold,” Aguiar said.

Someday Aguiar hopes more farmers will raise reindeer. “It’s no more different than caring for a cow or horse or pig,” he said. “You just feed and water them, vaccinate them and treat for parasites.” He finds his reindeer are mostly mild mannered and calm. “A lot of it has to do with how they are handled,” he said. “Minimize the stress and keep their basic needs met.”

In his job, Aguiar worked for two years with 4-H students, teaching them to raise and care for reindeer. This project led to the first market reindeer shown at a fair in the country.

His advice for those interested? “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it if you really want to do it,” he said. “You must have the proper infrastructure. Make sure you are educated in nutritional requirements and husbandry.

“And make sure you have enough money for feed.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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