Vermonter Doug Nelson: Dairy farmer, Restauranteur, and Controlled-Hunting Entrepreneur

doug nelson
© 2007 Gordon Alexander
Entrepreneur Doug Nelson of Derby, Vermont

Posted 02.12.07

"Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day ."
(Traditional Cowboy Song by Daniel E. Kelley 1873)

IRASBURG,VT | When driving up the hill into the small hilly town of Irasburg and the kids say "Hey Dad, check out the Buffalo," you'd better pull over and have a look. You'll probably blink as you see a herd of shaggy looking beasts grazing behind an 8 1/2 ft steel fence.

Not exactly a scene from Dances With Wolves but unusual for Vermont. They probably won't even notice you as they happily graze away continuously on stacks of hay.

doug nelson

These Buffalo from another place and era are on Doug Nelson's 700 acre wild game compound that is also home for elk, white-tailed deer, European Fallow deer, and several moose.

But all is not rosy here in Paradise - the state wants to kill part of his herd. More on that later…


Several miles away in Derby on Route 5, a few houses down from Nelson's Cow Palace Restaurant , Nelson sits behind a desk completely inundated by paper as he looks out at his herd of elk grazing on a field behind his restaurant.

The Cow Palace has gained an excellent reputation in the area by featuring Elk meat in addition to prime cuts of western beef and now buffalo. At the entrance of the restaurant is a unique archway painstakingly constructed with Elk antlers.

"It is the horniest restaurant in Vermont," says Nelson.

Inside, the decor is rustically Upper mid-Western with mounted deer and moose heads on the mantle, a stuffed black bear and a hulking Polar bear that used to be in Frank's Restaurant in downtown Newport years ago, as well as antler chandeliers.


The restaurant features elk stew daily, elk burgers and steak, along with Western beef and seafood. Eventually, Nelson says, more Buffalo added to the menu.

A consummate outdoors-man and wild animal lover, Nelson says the he is not a hunter.

"My main interest is feeding these beautiful animals and watching them grow."

Nelson, who is reluctant to give his age, confesses to being "ancient."

"There are a lot of people in the area who would love to find out how old I am," he says.

Nelson or one of this three sons who work at their Irasburg dairy farm ride the fence line in their 4-wheel drive trucks for at least an hour every day, leaving food for the animals. Most of the animals, grown used to the early morning visits, eagerly anticipate this daily ritual and are waiting in the trees. Some come out before the driver can get back into his truck.

"The elk and buffalo eat what my cattle eat -- TMR (Total Mix Ration ), a combination of mixed grain, hay silage, and grass silage," Nelson says.

Bully the Moose lumbers up to the fence looking for a special treat of bread and sometimes a can of domestic beer just to wash it down.

Some diners at the Cow Palace who have a window seat wait for their meal and look out over a herd of grazing elk. The diners probably don't like to think about it but these animals will eventually wind up on the menu.

Animals selected for the restaurant, usually bulls carrying hard antlers, are taken to Nelson's Hunt Park in Irasburg where they are inspected by representatives from the Vermont Department of Agriculture. The elk, Nelson says, are eventually "painlessly and humanly put down," then taken to Troy for butchering and preparation for the restaurant.


"The one thing I always insist on is an immediate, clean kill, with no stress for the animal -- stress that they would experience if they were trucked away and butchered. I want them to live as stress-free life as possible and come to a stress-free humane end."

From the first of September until the first part of February, Nelson opens up the elk hunting phase of his park. He says the hunts are controlled and supervised by expert guides who insist that the animals be killed in a swift , professional, and humane fashion.

During the Vermont deer hunting season, hunters may hunt the white tail deer in the park under what Nelson says is same stringent supervision.

Deep inside the park is a rustic but modern well outfitted comfortable, fully provisioned cabin for the hunters. Just outside a well-stocked fish pond.

"This kind of controlled hunting is the wave of the future," saysNelson. "People love to hunt and a lot of them don't have the time. In my park ,the hunter can come and spend a comfortable two days and go home with a wall full of antlers and a freezer full of meat."

In the off season Nelson wants to open up his Hunt Park to touring visitors who like to hunt with cameras.

Nelson loves to rave about the quality of elk and buffalo meat, claiming that according to studies it is low in calories and cholesterol as opposed to conventional beef.

"The meat is just delicious, lean and really much better for you than beef."

Buffalo and elk go well together on the menu but don't coexist well in the field, Nelson says.

"We have to keep them apart because the buffalo has such a ferocious appetite -- if they were together, the elk would have to eat second, and they would not do well getting enough food.

The buffalo would be happy if they just ate all day and they are so big nobody or nothing is going to push them aside, " Nelson says.

Nelson bought his buffalo in 2005 from another Vermont wild life entrepreneur, Tony Perry of Charlotte, Vermont.

Other than the fact Nelson loves his wild animals, he says he got into this entrepreneurial business just to keep his children and grand-children from leaving the state to find work.

"Sadly, Vermont's biggest export is it's youth. Once the kids graduate from school they will probably have to leave the area to find decent jobs. I really don't want to have to go to San Diego to visit my grandchildren, I'd like to keep them in Vermont, or at least Northern New England.

Three of Nelson's sons work with him on the farm and in the Hunt Park. His daughter Missy manages the Cow Palace and the other two live in nearby Massachusetts.

Nelson says he is concerned that the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department are not pleased with his Hunt Park and want to shoot his herd of while-tail deer as well as several Moose, claiming that it is not right that these wild animals are being fenced in.

Nelson and his attorneys are presently fighting this move in Montpelier, the Vermont state capitol, in an attempt to stall and or eliminate this treat.

"Thirty-two other states allow Hunt Parks like mine. I think our spirit of private enterprise has to be cherished. My animals are better fed and cared for that they would be on their own in the wild," he claims.

Nelson chuckles when he remembers recently selling two trailer loads of Vermont seed-elk to a farm in Colorado, since it was the Colorado area most of these Elk's ancestors came from in the first place.

Leave it to a Vermonter to attempt to reinvent the Old West. And, check out the restaurant at www.derbycowpalace.com


Copyright © 2007 Gordon Alexander/Log Cabin Chronicles/02.07