For three generations, Melinda Huszti and her family have owned and operated Bonnie Brae Elk Farm on Quarry Road in Rochester Township.
Bonnie Brae, meaning “pretty hill” in Scottish, consists of four adjacent farms. The business began raising elk in 1991 just after Huszti and her sister, Maribelle Donaldson, took over day-to-day operations from their parents.
“We knew horses are very tricky and my dad was basically a genius with horses,” said Huszti. “There was no way we could start from scratch with horses and compete. Since we live in California, we wanted an animal that would be fine on its own if precautions we’ve taken to care for them fell through. As it’s happened, though, we’ve had great help.”
Huszti said the farm was purchased by her grandfather, William Murray, in the early 20th century using funds he’d raised as a race car driver in Russia.
Before that, Murray had been working at a racing track in North Randall and agreed to accompany a horse on a trip overseas. He ended up living in Russia for 13 years, a period which included marrying his wife, Josephine, in Moscow.
The farm, now expanded to just under 500 acres, continued to be home to horses when ownership passed to Huszti’s parents, William and Mary Ellen Murray, in 1940. When the time came for the sisters to take over, they wanted to reach out to new customers.
There are roughly 100 elk on the farm at any given time.
“We wanted an animal that fit into lots of markets,” she said. “At the time we took over, pot-bellied pigs and ostriches were the big things. It just seemed like those were one-product animals. People never really got interested in ostrich meat, try as they would. Plus, how many pot-bellied pigs are going to be used as pets in houses across America?”
Elk venison meat is sold on site. Bonnie Brae kiosks have often been found in Shaker Heights and at Westlake’s Crocker Park over the past six years, but demand ended up getting ahead of supply, Huszti said.
“We sold so much of it we decided to take a couple years off and build the herd back up,” she said. “We went at that with maybe a little more enthusiasm than we should have. We weren’t out there last summer and won’t be this year either.
“Venison is very low in cholesterol and fat. People who are on diets for health with red meat restrictions can usually eat as much elk venison as they like.”
Elk antler is also used on the farm to make chew toys for dogs and dietary supplements. It takes an elk a little over two months to grow 35 pounds of antler.
Huszti said antler capsules are used to boost immunity and treat arthritis.
“My husband asked if I noticed that he wasn’t using as much aspirin as I used to,” she said. “I used to buy him a bottle a month or so. He wasn’t even using half of that. It worked well for him for a couple of years then it kind of faded away like he’d built up a tolerance. It’s anecdotal evidence, but still evidence.”
The owners try to make it back to the farm twice a year.
“As you get a little older you can’t do as much on a farm as you used to,” said Huszti. “We’re very fortunate to have such good people on site throughout the year. I can still help find the calves when they need tagged, see if a cow is in trouble while in labor, bottle feed, and perform a lot of record keeping duties. It just feels good to be here.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.