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An eight-point bucks head emerges from tall green grass
Information icon White-tailed deer on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tom Koerner, USFWS.

Locally sourced and served

Program stresses food, health benefits of hunting

It was a fine day to sit in a tree — cool, the December sun casting shadows across the leafy floor below. Mark Carter didn’t move.

The minutes passed. They became an hour. Carter and the man who’d brought him into the woods traded an occasional murmur. The shadows grew longer. Night would soon come to Georgia.

Then, just about 100 yards away: a flash of tan in the dwindling light — Odocoileus virginianus, a white-tail deer. She flicked a glance in Carter’s direction, then lowered her head to eat. Carter raised his rifle.

A man in orange hunting vest and camo with a doe he shot in a grassy field
Mark Carter had never hunted before enrolling in Field to Fork. The metro Atlanta resident took the course late last year. On his final day, he brought home his first deer. One reason for his interest: putting fresh, additives-free food on the table. Photo courtesy of Field to Fork.

A single shot echoed through the woods. The doe in his sights, startled, bounded away. She didn’t go far. When Carter stood over the deer, his mentor congratulated him on a clean shot — perfect, the way he’d been shown a day earlier.

“A week prior, I would have been shaking, wouldn’t have known what to do,” said Carter, an environmental biologist who was raised in the suburbs of Winston-Salem, N.C. “But it all felt fine. It felt right. It felt perfect.”

Carter, who lives in metro Atlanta, is one of a growing group of new sportsmen (and women) introduced to hunting courtesy of Field to Fork. A national initiative, Field to Fork is offered by a variety of organizations, including the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Quality Deer Management Association and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Based on a program started in Kentucky, Field to Fork has its headquarters in Georgia and operates in seven additional states — Michigan, Missouri, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

The program stresses the benefits of hunting — for exercise, to manage wildlife populations, to put additive-free food on the table. A bonus: knowing that the harvested animal lived a truly wild life — free of pen or paddock, uncaged and unfettered.

A red-headed man with a beard
Charles Swanson Evans, Georgia’s R3 manager, is a lifelong hunter. He believes Field to Fork will help get new hunters into the field. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Carter and a handful of other novice hunters spent the bulk of a weekend late last year getting a hands-on introduction to hunting. He considers his time well spent — a reason, too, to pass along what he learned to his sons, ages 5, 8 and 10.

And this: “For lunch today, I’ve got venison stew.”

Carter’s account is the sort of story that Charles Swanson Evans likes to hear. A lifelong hunter, he is Georgia’s R3 manager. In the world of hunting, that acronym stands for recruit, retain and reactivate — to recruit new hunters, retain those who already are hunting and reactivate sportsmen so that they return to field and forest in search of food for the table.

Field to Fork programs vary. Some, such as that in which Carter participated, focus on hunting with firearms. Others introduce would-be hunters to the use of crossbows.

Hunting could use more enthusiasts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures show. In 2009, hunters nationwide bought more than 45 million licenses, permits, tags and hunting stamps; by 2019, that total had dropped to about 36 million. Those findings have a profound effect on wildlife agencies’ bottom lines: the sale of permits, licenses and tags underwrite an array of wildlife conservation programs.

Evans understands the link between hunting and wildlife conservation. He also thinks the best way to reverse that trend is stressing hunting’s benefits — especially when it’s time to eat.

“I’m kind of a foodie,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s something very satisfying to me knowing where my food came from.”

He comes from Atlanta, and is as Georgia as you can get. After high school, Evans attended the University of Georgia, where he got a degree in biology. His love of the outdoors led him to his current job with the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

Field to Fork receives additional funding from Quality Deer Management, the state Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Chapter of Safari Club International, the National Wild Turkey federation and other sources.

Evans finds himself in the role that dads and uncles once played: the teacher who passes along hunting to sons and daughters. But American culture, he said, has changed. Fewer people live in rural areas, and urban residents aren’t as likely to take rifle, shotgun or bow in hand to bring home food.

But the growing number of locavores — people who prefer eating locally sourced food — has put renewed focus on hunting. Evans points to surveys which show people who wouldn’t normally use a firearm or crossbow for food reconsider their position when learning about the sport’s benefits — how it helps manage wild game, provides fresh food and exercise, and more. One survey indicated that hunting enjoys an 85 percent acceptance rate, Evans said.

“If you market hunting from a food standpoint,” he said, “that’s something no one can argue with.”

‘Something very satisfying’

Other organizations are taking notice of what’s happening in Field to Fork states, said Justin Lawson, a regional representative for the deer management association. He handles white-tail issues in Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky.

For example, Arkansas is fine-tuning Eat Natural, another program stressing hunting’s link with organic food. In Tennessee, the organizers of Hunt Masters, a program focused on youth hunting, are planning to expand their efforts to entice adults, he said.

“The whole goal is to get new hunters,” Lawson said. “I would say we’re getting some traction.”

So would Samantha Pedder, director of business development for the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports. Founded 10 years ago, the council promotes hunting, other shooting sports and stresses hunting’s contributions to wildlife conservation.

The organization is a strong proponent of R3, which Pedder said is crucial to ensuring that wildlife management programs continue thriving. More than 50 R3 specialists across the nation are extolling the virtues of hunting, Pedder said. Field to Fork, she said, helps build that awareness.

“This helps people connect with their food,” she said.

The demographic where hunting is enjoying the greatest surge: women, especially younger women and mothers.

“With them there is that food connection, that family connection,” said Pedder, who began hunting when she was 10. Two years later, she shot her first buck.

Annalise Sampson is still waiting on her first buck, but she’s ready when the opportunity presents itself. A resident of suburban Atlanta, she grew up in densely populated Palm Beach County, Florida — not the sort of place where an aspiring hunter could try her luck. But when she moved to Georgia, Sampson signed up for a course designed for students offered through the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

Now, said Sampson, she is a “very new hunter.” She’s also found unexpected satisfaction from spending time under heaven’s roof, in the forest.

“I really enjoy the cooking aspect of hunting,” said Sampson, who works for a soil and water conservation district in north Georgia. “But it’s also about being in the woods.”

She’s so taken with her outdoor experience that she passed on to her husband, Chris, the lessons she’d learned: how to climb a tree stand and remain still; to listen and wait; and — when the moment is right — to take aim.

It’s paid off. Her husband recently shot his first deer. It’s in the freezer.

Now, she’s taken her love of hunting a step further. Sampson’s decided to share what she knows with other potential hunters.

She recently founded Georgia’s newest chapter of Field to Fork.

Contact

Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist
mark_r_davis@fws.gov, (404) 679-7291

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