ReGen Brands Recap #77

Jacob Muise @ Maui Nui Venison

Managing Maui’s Invasive Axis Deer For Regenerative Outcomes

On this episode, Kyle and Anthony speak with Jacob Muise who is a Co-Founder and the CEO of Maui Nui Venison. Maui Nui Venison is supporting regenerative agriculture with its lineup of venison products made from wild-harvesting the invasive Axis deer population on the island of Maui. Their venison meat and snack sticks can be purchased on their website.


An Invasive Species & Non-Native Founder

Jake was raised in a subsistence hunting family in Northern Canada and moved to Hawaii to play division one volleyball at The University of Hawaii. While the climates of Hawaii and Northern Canada could not have been more different, Jake quickly felt at home as he became friends with students from similar small-town, subsistence-hunting backgrounds on the island of Moloka’i. Throughout college, he spent summer and winter breaks with his friend’s family on Moloka’i where he began to hunt and learn about the Axis deer. 

Axis deer were first brought to Hawaii from India as early as 1868. Unlike other deer species, Axis deer are able to mate year-round, leading to rapid herd growth. On the islands of Hawaii where space is limited, Axis deer can quickly take over the land. On Maui, there are currently 70,000 Axis deer, but it is estimated that without management, the population will reach 200,000 in twenty years. 

Jake’s interest in Axis deer management came from a visceral experience one summer during a drought period in Moloka’i. While out hunting deer with his friend, Jake noticed that hundreds of deer were lying down and dying from starvation. This was not uncommon – his friend explained to him that every 10 to 15 years the Axis deer population outsizes the available feed, which is intensified by drought, and a significant portion of the population dies off. It pained Jake to see the deer struggling, and from that point forward, he became obsessed with finding ethical ways to manage the Axis deer population. He started a research-based non-profit, the Axis Deer Institute, and after a decade of research, co-founded Maui Nui Venison. 

“It was just like this gut-wrenching realization for me. I thought this cannot be how we are treating a resource that is so valuable to the community. This can't be the default management mechanism. And that was the entrepreneurial trigger for me.” - Jake

Before launching Maui Nui, Jake and his team spent years building out advanced technology systems to track and monitor Axis deer and refine a stress-free hunting and harvesting approach. After establishing themselves as experts in Axis deer management, they received a three-year contract to find and remove Axis deer in a 100,000-square-mile area in Hawaii. After successfully completing that mission, they were then invited by ranchers on Maui to help manage the population of Axis deer on their land, which opened up the opportunity to turn the project into a food company. 


Balance & Ecology, Culture & Community

Maui Nui’s mission is to balance Axis deer populations for the good of the environment, communities, and food systems. Axis deer overpopulation is a serious threat to Hawaii’s ecosystem. They eat an exceptional 7.5 pounds of dry feed a day, consuming grasses and shrubs all the way to the root, leaving large swaths of uncovered soil behind. When heavy rains come, topsoil is washed all the way down the hillsides and into the ocean, contaminating reefs and hurting the local fish population. Up on the mountains, deers decimate the understory of the forest, leading to 50% less water capture. Proactive management of the Axis deer population is crucial to ensure that deer do not catalyze environmental degradation within the fragile island ecosystem. 

Maui Nui honors that Axis deer have an important role to play in Hawaiian culture and community. Their approach honors the subsistence hunting methods Jake first experienced in Moloka’i, and they will never harvest more deer than is needed for population control. Jake is proud to have created a brand that helps preserve the native landscape, supports local regenerative ranchers, and creates employment opportunities for young Hawaiians. Maui Nui offers a reduced price for local buyers to support community access to nutrient-dense meat and has worked with a variety of local organizations to support community food distribution after COVID-19 and the Maui wildfires in 2023. To date, Maui Nui has distributed over 120,000 pounds of venison and 130,000 meals to the local community.

“My favorite part of the regen conversation is that there are local young people taking care of place. That's what regenerative ag is. People are vested in taking care of this place and its long-term health. That’s an amazing thing to grow here and to see the local community committed to environmental improvement.” - Jake


Accidentally Creating the ‘Perfect Meat Triangle’

Jake describes how Maui Nui accidentally captured the three crucial points in the perfect meat business triangle: breed, feed, and humanely harvested. Maui Nui sources from a single breed (Axis deer) that naturally forages for high-nutrient feed. Plus, Maui Nui’s innovative, night-time hunting process is stress-free for the deer. Deer are never baited, fenced, penned, or corralled and remain wild until the moment of harvest. The result is a highly consistent, tender, and incredibly nutrient-dense meat. 

Creating and scaling this process was no easy feat. Maui Nui’s required approvals and processing system may be the most complex and intensive process we have seen for a regenerative CPG brand to date. In order for the meat to be approved for human consumption, a USDA official must accompany every hunting session and oversee every kill to ensure it is done in a humane manner. Then a USDA veterinarian also has to inspect every animal before it is processed. Additionally, it cannot take more than one hour from the time the deer is shot until it is fully cleaned and placed in cold storage. Jake and his team built out a modular, mobile-processing facility that they can move to be near their hunting missions, so they could create adequate processing flexibility and scale. Building their own processing facility has also been crucial to managing product consistency and quality.


Powering E-Commerce With True Scarcity

Selling the meat wound up being much easier than processing it. Early on, Jake interviewed on podcasts with massive audiences like the Tim Ferriss Show and later Peter Attia mentioned the brand on The Joe Rogan Experience. As a result, they maxed out their subscription service and were out of stock for seven months. Maui Nui has a limited supply – they will not over-hunt Axis deer beyond what is needed to control the population. There’s potential for scale to two other islands, but in reality, the brand is unique in that it has true product scarcity.

 “Lots of companies can have false scarcity. I think when you have true scarcity, it's something that  we are going to do our best to try and leverage for community and customer and utilize that pricing power to make sure we can continue to grow and serve.” - Jake

What drives customer acquisition and retention? Jake divides customers into three main cohorts: 1) those who buy because it tastes great, 2) vegans who appreciate Maui Nui’s humane harvesting process, and 3) those who care about health and wellness and purchase the meat for its nutrient density. Data so far shows that Maui Nui’s venison far outcompetes other meat in terms of nutrient density, delivering 10 to 11 grams of protein for every 50 calories of meat. 

Looking to the not-so-distant future, Maui Nui is using product innovation and partnerships to expand its offerings. Jake reveals that they are working on an organ meat stick and deer antler health supplement capsules, which will enable them to utilize more parts of the deer. They are also excited to partner with Kettle & Fire on a deer bone broth. Jake is particularly enthused to partner with brands like Kettle & Fire and others that prioritize telling impactful food systems stories. 


50% Market Share 4 Regen

Jake’s response to growing regenerative brand market share is direct and simple: prioritize product quality and taste. Even more importantly, what Jake highlights is that taking care of the land and the soil is what ultimately drives high quality and good taste, which is what continues to make regenerative brands a win-win for people and planet.

When you think it tastes good enough, you have to go back and try and make it taste better. I love it because it's nutrition of place. Ultimately, how good it tastes comes down to how well you take care of your places.” - Jake 


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Jacob Muise @ Maui Nui Venison HERE

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