Reindeer Games

Guests learn about reindeer and enjoy a festive holiday outing at the Shortsville Reindeer Farm, open by appointment.

A Shortsville Farm gives the North Pole a run for its money

by Renee Schulte

When you dream about Christmas, what comes to mind? Do you smell hot cocoa or a fresh-cut pine tree, picture a snow-dusted field, hear the melody of your favorite carol sung by a group of red-cheeked children or the clatter of reindeer on the roof?

While Mike Schaertl can’t make all your Christmas dreams come true, he can offer you a visit to the Shortsville Reindeer Farm.

A visit starts in a rustic pole barn, with a short educational talk about reindeer. Surrounded by festive lights, garlands and the aroma of hot apple cider, kids and grownups alike are full of questions. Where do reindeer come from? What do they eat? How big do their antlers get? How do they fly? (The answer: FedEx.)

After learning about safety when interacting with reindeer, guests can pet, feed and admire the animals up close. Reindeer handlers offer guidance and answer even more questions. Visitors pose for selfies with the reindeer or in an antique sleigh. Mrs. Claus is often on hand to help with photos and charm the little ones.

Kids feed the chickens, who rival the reindeer in popularity. Guests are invited to wander around, enjoy the festive atmosphere and get to know more about these real, not just magical, creatures.

When asked why he decided to get reindeer, owner Mike Schaertl answers, “Who wouldn’t want reindeer?”

Schaertl grew up in Shortsville and returned to raise a family after a career as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. A science teacher and coach at Red Jacket, he spent his “leisure” time creating a hobby farm on the corn field and wood lot where he played as a kid. Hobbies included raising pheasants, peacocks and turkeys, building a sugar shack to make maple syrup and keeping bees.

On Christmas Day 2015, his kids all grown, Schaertl realized he needed even more hobbies. After reading an article about reindeer farms in Pennsylvania and New York, he said to his wife, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had reindeer here?” She laughed and said, “Yes, dear.”

Schaertl promptly joined the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association and spent the next two years networking with veteran reindeer owners, learning the ins and outs of raising reindeer. He coordinated with local, state and federal agencies for variances and permits. He built an octagonal reindeer barn, based on structures common in the 1800s, using trees from his wood lot for poles.

Finally, in the fall of 2017, two young reindeer bulls arrived from a breeder in Corning.

Schaertl was so excited about the arrival of Moose and Little Buddy that he threw an open house and invited everyone on the internet. Seven hundred people visited that day.

The open houses got bigger and more frequent over the next two years. Visitors ended up waiting in line for a selfie with a reindeer. Schaertl’s wife continued to wonder what she had so casually agreed to.

When COVID limited the size of gatherings, Schaertl discovered the benefits of hosting smaller groups at scheduled times. All visits are now by appointment using an online booking system.

“This gives people a better chance to wander around, interact with the reindeer, take photos at their leisure and just enjoy their visit,” he says.

Schaertl built a second barn in 2021 to accommodate the group educational talks. The poles and beams are primarily ash killed by the emerald ash borer. A Weihnachts Hütte, modeled after the German Christmas market stalls from his favorite times in the Army, houses a little gift shop with products made on the farm as well as a few locally-sourced Christmas items.

All along Schaertl has been slowly increasing his little herd. The most recent additions are four young reindeer who flew in from Alaska – on a FedEx plane – in 2021. A little smaller than the New York reindeer, they were a huge a hit with visitors. The new reindeer include the farm’s first two cows; Schaertl hopes a baby reindeer will be born in Shortsville in the future.

Farm visit admissions help support operations, and the reindeer also support a number of charitable events, including Run or Walk with the Reindeer. Held in November, the event invites participants to complete a one-mile fun run or half-mile walk from Shortsville to Manchester, accompanied by two reindeer. It helps fund the Red Jacket PTSA FoodLink Backpack Program

“From the very first year, the community really got behind the run with the reindeer,” Schaertl says. The Village of Manchester and local civic groups throw a party at the finish with free hot dogs, s’mores, cocoa, pictures in the sleigh with Santa and Mrs. Claus and more. This year, the Lions Clubs’ tree lighting ceremony will cap the event.

A raffle for a Christmas Day visit from the reindeer to the winner’s home raised $6,000 for FoodLink last year. The first year of the raffle, a group from a local radio station wanted to designate the Golisano Children’s Hospital for the visit if they won, but didn’t win. Schaertl added a visit to the hospital anyway, on Christmas Eve. This is now one of his favorite annual events.

The reindeer are available for hire and can be seen at community festivals and corporate events, from Roc Holiday Village to the Windmill in Penn Yan and points beyond. Individuals can book private events, too. One memorable evening, the reindeer played a featured role in a marriage proposal.

Schaertl retired from teaching in 2022 to devote more time to the reindeer. Ever the teacher, he offers educational events throughout the year as time allows, including apple cider making using an old-fashioned cider press, an introduction to honeybees, tapping maple trees and a free Easter egg hunt with the help of a local Girl Scout troop.

“We are grateful for the support we’ve had in this adventure, from our wonderful neighbors and community who have embraced having reindeer in their midst, to the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, the DEC and the local USDA, who are extremely helpful and easy to work with,” Schaertl says. “It’s been a wonderful way to share the magic of Christmas with so many people, and it just keeps getting better.”

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