So other than the
noble idea of keeping this species alive, why would anyone want to raise
musk ox? Their meat doesn’t taste
good and they don’t produce milk that humans like, either.
. . . and they keep the poop-scoopers busy, too!
One of Teal's
greatest contributions was realizing that
their primary economic value is in the very soft underwool (qiviut) they shed every summer
-- and making this fiber available in large enough quantities to
be profitable for Native Alaskan women and elders in remote villages so they can
be more self-sufficient.
non-allergenic (no oils), extremely light weight, eight times warmer than wool from sheep, and
very, very soft.
It has good tensile
strength and doesn't shrink. Those qualities
make qiviut the second-most
expensive fiber in the world. (Vicuña
is the priciest.)
University of Alaska in Fairbanks raises musk ox now at its Large Animal Research
Center. That and the Palmer Musk Ox Farm are the only two locations I'm aware of in Alaska where
visitors can see domesticated musk ox.
A GRAND SOCIAL EXPERIMENT
What is now Palmer was originally home to
Athabascan Indians before a trading post was established in 1890 by
George Palmer. A railway station was built there in 1916 and it
developed into a town.
In 1935 it became the site of one of the most
unusual experiments in American social engineering, the Matanuska Valley
The Matanuska Valley is the richest agricultural
area in Alaska. It has a relatively long growing season (for Alaska!),
rich soil, and a unique microclimate that, along with the long hours of
daylight in the summer, allows farmers to produce giant vegetables.
are prolific, too.
One of President Roosevelt's New Deal relief
agencies chose 200+ hardy farm families, primarily of Scandinavian
descent from northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Wisconsin, to join an
agricultural colony in the Matanuska Valley. The failure rate was high
but many of their descendents still live in the area.
Palmer is the only community in Alaska that
developed primarily from an agricultural economy. It continues to be the
most productive farming area in the state.
VISITING THE MUSK OX FARM
The farm is located on Archie Road a short
distance off the Glenn Hwy. at MM 50.1. From May to September it is open
to visitors from 10 AM to 5 PM and by appointment during the winter.
Tours begin every half hour in the summer.
I called to make a tour appointment yesterday
and to determine if there was room to park the Cameo on-site. The young
woman who answered the phone assured me there was plenty of room for
RVs, which frequently visit the farm.
We were able to reserve two spots on the first
tour at 10 AM.
Since we were parked overnight at a turnout just twelve miles to
the east we had a leisurely breakfast this morning before packing up the camper to go
to the farm.
We still had some concerns about the parking lot
and wanted to be the first ones there so we would have adequate
We arrived at the farm at 9:30 AM and had to wait on the little rural
road for 15 minutes to get in the gate (next photo), then another 15 minutes to get
in the door.
While we waited another 5th-wheel came in and parked behind us. Lo and
behold, it was a 2003 Cameo with a nice couple from VT. We’ve seen so
few Carriage 5th-wheels up here so far this summer that it was a
We talked with the couple while we waited inside the museum/office/gift
shop in this barn for our tour to begin:
The Cameo couple was on a 34-day caravan with 16 RVs, the lead vehicle,
and a mechanic in another RV at the back. They enjoyed the tour with the
caravan and now they are on their own to explore some more.
Our musk ox farm tour began at 10:15 and lasted for an hour.
Our group started out with eight people on the porch, where the guide
told us some history about musk ox and the farm and explained the few
rules we were to follow. The group gradually expanded to about
twenty as more people arrived and were sent out to join us:
That was my only complaint about the tour. The guide had to repeat basic
instructions (do's and don't's) several times as new people were allowed to join our group
after we'd gotten out to the fields. The late-comers also asked
questions about information she'd already told us at the beginning of
It would have been more pleasant
for everyone if the late folks had been held back until the next tour group
The young lady who led our tour was very articulate, detailed, and had a
good sense of humor:
The farm raises the musk ox and gives the qivuit to Native
Alaskan (mostly Yupik) women in remote villages in the western part of
Alaska to knit into scarves, hats,
and other accessories.
They can knit as much or as little as they want and can choose the
types of garments they want to make.
The knitters from
each village have their own distinct pattern for the scarves they make
here to see the intricate designs more
to read about their origin.
Belonging to this cooperative is a good way for the women to supplement their family's
traditional subsistence lifestyles since it is so hard to make a living
in extremely isolated Alaskan communities accessible only by air. It's
difficult to start new businesses in the Bush and job opportunities are
extremely limited. Many young Native Alaskans have to leave their
villages and live in more populated areas of the state to make a living.
It takes about a pound
of underwool to make one hat; each grown musk ox sheds about five pounds
of the stuff each summer. Some we saw were already shedding and looked
pretty ragged, like the one below. There were a lot of clumps of qiviut
lying not only in the fields but also in the pathways where we walked.
This female musk ox is losing lots of her under
wool and looks like she needs to be combed to
salvage the fiber. Maybe it's not good quality? You
can see clumps of qiviut on the ground, too.
The women in the Oomingmak Cooperative get to keep 90% of the sales price of the
expensive garments they knit; the farm gets the remainder to maintain
Additional farm income is derived from the cost of the tours.
The farm is a non-profit cooperative and a worthy endeavor so we didn't
mind paying the highest
ticket price of $11 each. The senior rate of $9 is for age 65 and over (we
aren't quite there yet).
The farm has exhibits about the musk ox project and several garments to
see but none of them are for sale. Qivuit accessories
can be purchased at the Oomingmak's store in Anchorage or
At the farm you can buy other items like stuffed musk ox toys, note
cards, and t-shirts:
I love this logo on some of the t-shirts and note
Our tour guide says
there are currently 73 musk ox at the farm. All of the musk ox --
which don't have musk glands, aren't oxen, and are more like goats and
Our guide couldn’t recognize all of them by looks but said she knows
them by their behavior and/or if she could see their numbers (all are
Musk ox have very distinct personalities with as much variation as you'd
find in humans.
The cows aren’t bred until they are at least four years old, and only
certain cows and bulls are used for breeding. They want gentle, domesticated musk
ox, not ones with undesirable traits.
I think I'll mosey over here and meet these nice
people . . .
Musk ox are not as big as you'd think they'd be. Mature bulls stand just
four to five feet tall at the shoulder and weigh between 600-1,000
pounds. Cows are smaller, ranging from 400-600 pounds.
This year’s fifteen calves are the most the farm has had in one spring.
The ones we saw are about two months old and already getting pretty big;
one was just three weeks old and very cute:
The mothers and babies are kept in two separate fenced fields.
Yearlings, two- and three-year-old females, and bulls are kept in three
We were led to all the fields so we could see, touch, and feed the musk
Most kept to themselves or ran away when they saw all of us
approach. A few were brave enough to come over to be fed (grass,
dandelions) and petted:
The guide warned us to stay away from the horns but it was OK to let
them eat out of our hands:
The guide had some funny stories to tell us about the musk ox’s habits
The males sometimes damage the gates, posts, and fences. If they aren’t
fed when they want to eat, they’ll just start eating the wooden hay
enclosures. They have tires on posts to play with, and soccer balls to
Big Boy toys
They were too rowdy with some large 500-pound rubber balls given to them
by a local business; those balls and a few damaged hay structures
are in a field by themselves:
We really enjoyed this tour.
The weather was great, the farm and surrounding snow-clad mountains were
gorgeous, the animals intriguing, and the guide very good. She told us
much more that I can’t remember and she answered everyone’s questions
We highly recommend this
tour for kids from 2 to 92 years old. It was well worth the money (that’s coming from frugal folks!).
Next entry: trip notes along the Glenn Highway from
Sutton-Alpine to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil