BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. — Talk of a quintessential American farm often conjures up a mental image of a red barn, cornfields, pigs, cows and chickens.
But for a small but growing number of West Virginia farmers, "the farm" refers to deer.
Just outside Barboursville, Lanny Clay and his wife, Terri, raise whitetail deer, a relatively new venture they started almost two years ago.
The Clays' cervid (deer) farm, dubbed "Buck Acres," has steadily grown in both physical size and number of deer. A deer born last Wednesday brought the number of deer Clay owns to 23.
"It's just now to the point I've got to start selling some," he said.
Lanny Clay had wanted to own deer as long as he could remember. He said growing up in Barboursville, there weren't a lot of deer near his parents' home — maybe contributing to his curiosity about the animals.
"I just always wanted a pet deer," he said. "We didn't have deer back then around here. Now there's deer everywhere."
But for years, Clay was under the impression that deer farming was not allowed in West Virginia. Then, not too long ago, he learned from an Ohio resident planning to start a deer farm near Parkersburg that yes, deer farming is a permitted activity in the Mountain State.
After getting the proper permits (including permission from his wife) and having property inspections completed, Clay started his farm in October 2011 with about six deer. Since then, quite a few deer have been born on his property, including 12 just this year — eight of which are bucks.
The newborn deer and the growth of the bucks are Clay's favorite parts of the whole experience.
"It's just interesting," he said.
The Clays are far from alone in their venture. In fact, there are roughly 40 deer farms around the state, according to a 2011 West Virginia University Extension Service report. That number pales in comparison to Ohio and Pennsylvania though, both of which have hundreds of deer farms.
The same report also evidences the rapid growth of deer farming in the state. For example, of the farms in existence in 2011, 64 percent had been established between 2009 and 2011, and just four percent of all farms in the state existed before 2000. When the report was written, 37 deer farms existed.
The vast majority of deer farms in the state (74 percent) are operations that exist for breeding and related activities only, like Clay's farm. A minority exist for hunting purposes.
Every day, Clay checks on the deer in the morning and then again in the evening. His deer are fed a diet of oats, beet pulp, soybeans, minerals, apples and other grains once each day.
"I raise as a hobby," he said. "I enjoy doing it."
That's not to say everything has been perfect on the farm. Last year, several deer were lost to coyotes, just like animals on any farm. One deer Clay purchased also died from the stress of being transported to the farm.
Clay went into deer farming with little hands-on experience. A fellow deer farmer in Philippi helped Clay get started and continues to help him today.
"I learn things all the time," he said. "I know what to look for. When I first got them, I didn't know what a sick deer looked like."