By Erika Webb
When Orange City police commander Jason Sampsell had to miss an interview at his deer farm because of a shooting at Walmart, he called for backup. Commander Sampsell's fiancÚ Jamie Cox -- the other half of J&J Whitetails -- had him covered.
Seventeen deer meander around the five-acre breeder farm in DeLeon Springs. Some of the does walk up to visitors; they submit to petting and gently lick arms like any friendly dog would.
All of the deer were born in Florida, Ms. Cox said, but their bloodlines hail from Missouri, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Other members of J&J's herd are rescues from the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Commander Sampsell and Ms. Cox, both lifelong hunters, began researching breeder farms three years ago. Originally they wanted an agricultural exemption. They sought to raise large bucks to sell to hunting reserves. Practicality gave way to pleasure and Ms. Cox said the deer have impacted their family in ways they didn't expect.
They've seen babies born, antlers shed and quickly re-grown. Ms. Cox said the new antlers, "under velvet," can grow an inch in a day.
And, they've discovered deer like Fruit Loops.
They also like watermelon, green beans, cucumbers, squash, carrots and romaine lettuce. They don't like iceberg.
"And acorns, oh my gosh, they love them," Ms. Cox said. "We have friends who'd shovel acorns by bucket loads and bring them to us."
Raising deer has changed the way they think in terms of hunting as well.
Calling the "If it's brown it's down" mentality of some hunters "ignorant" Ms. Cox said harvesting deer that are too young is not good for the overall population. She said it's important to "let the genetics of Florida get bigger."
Two basic tenets are central to the idea of what quality deer hunting has come to mean, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.
"The first is voluntary restraint on the part of the hunter to delay the harvesting of young bucks until they reach maturity. The second is to participate in the active management of the herd by harvesting does when necessary to prevent deer overpopulation and promote herd health," FWC reported.
Bucks increase body weight and antler size each year until they reach about six to eight years of age, therefore, delaying harvest of younger bucks means there will be more bucks in the field in subsequent years, according to FWC.
"It will change you," Ms. Cox said. "If you're an avid hunter like we are, it will make you more selective when hunting because you know more about them age-wise. I haven't shot one in two years if that tells you anything."
She said as soon as the buck fawns are born numbered tags are placed in their ears; they remain naturally skittish.
"Once they get up and going you can't tell who they are," Ms. Cox said. "The ear tags let us know who belongs to whom and what their bloodlines are. Their bloodline chart looks like our family tree."
Keeping his distance and looking a little lopsided in mid-antler shed was a nine-point named Apollo.
Pointing at Zeus, another wary buck, she explained:
"People say, 'I can't believe you're raising bucks to be shot,' but the bucks are not hand fed. That 15-point, you're not going to get near him."
Commander Sampsell has worked for the Orange City Police Department for 20 years. Police work, even in smaller towns, is notoriously stressful as evidenced by the reason for his absence. Is this endeavor part business and part tranquilizer?
"For normal people this would be a stress reliever but Jason's a worry wart," Ms. Cox said laughing. "When they're pregnant he's pacing; when they're having (babies) he's chewing his nails. There's more pacing outside the fence than inside."
But they do enjoy sitting near the large pond and watching the gentle animals.
That peace is toil's reward.
"It's a lot of work," she said. "We check on them regularly, walk the fence line, watching for coyotes and dogs."
Going into their third year, Commander Sampsell and Ms. Cox are still in the process of establishing their herd. They haven't sold any bucks yet.
Ms. Cox said the first order of business was to meet FWC licensing requirements including building eight-foot fences and at least one three-sided -- two sides and a roof -- structure.
At J&J there are three shelters.
"You only have to have one, but, of course, they're spoiled," she said.
The first year was trying.
A bobcat attack, failure of some of the offspring to thrive and other unexpected heartbreaks proved to be part of the learning process for the couple. But they persevered.
Ms. Cox said hotwiring the perimeter has kept the bobcats out and this spring it appears all of the does are pregnant.
J&J Whitetails is a member of the North American Deer Farmers Association, or NADeFA, which reports deer farming is one of the fastest growing industries in rural America, and is a "great alternative agricultural pursuit for families."
"Compared to traditional livestock, the deer industry is booming. It generates $3 billion for the U.S. economy and supports tens of thousands of jobs in communities across the country," the NADeFA website stated.
Social networking sites like Facebook also are helping to familiarize the couple with other breeders and the industry in general. When it's time to sell, it will serve as an advertising tool.
When sold, the doe fawns will bring anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 or higher, depending on their bloodlines. Bucks can command tens of thousands and higher, Ms. Cox said.
It's more than just a business, Commander Sampsell said in a phone interview.
"It's all the other farmers we've been in contact with across the country, the camaraderie and support," he said. "I've had a lot of people extend a hand to help me. It's not like other businesses where they don't want to tell you their trade secrets; there are a lot of unique individuals involved who want to help us succeed."