Call of the Wild

Consumer demand for bison meat is driving Virginia farmers to make a go of raising these hardy throwbacks from a lost era.

The big woolies, holdovers from the ice age, ramble over the hill—enormous chocolate brown mounds on spindly, spring-loaded legs. A few leap effortlessly across a rut, nimble despite their size. Dressed in heavy coats for winter with shaggy outer hair that is longer on the mane and legs, they appear primeval—wearing their hides like armor, draped over layers of fat and muscle.

Calves—several hundred pounds apiece—are dwarfed by the formidable breeding bulls whose anvil-shaped heads are as wide as manhole covers, some of their menacing horns broken from combat with other bulls. Weighing 2,000 pounds, their forward-leaning bodies make them look like sprinters ready to come out of the blocks, and in fact, bison have been clocked at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. The beasts have even been known to jump up to six feet high from a standing start.

This is Cibola Farms. Located outside Culpeper, it is home to one of the largest bison operations in Virginia, and on this day in mid-December, the herd numbers about 400. Standing idly in the field, the bison are unmistakable monuments to an earlier time in America when Lewis and Clark described herds so numerous that “they darkened the whole plains,” their hooves beating against the grasslands like thunder as they moved in waves from one feeding ground to the next. Though as many as 60 million bison once roamed the North American continent, by 1900, as the Old West faded, fewer than 1,000 bison remained, overhunting, disease and loss of habitat devastating their once strong numbers.

But today, bison have made an amazing comeback. There are now about 500,000 in the U.S. and Canada. Some live on public lands and reservations, or in conservation herds, but most live on ranches. About 50 farms and ranches in Virginia, from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the western highlands, are raising bison, according to the most recently available USDA Census of Agriculture.

The question is, why? Of course, credit goes to those who have worked to preserve the species, but more recently, to Americans’ changing tastes—we want lean, naturally-raised meat. And we’re willing to pay for it.

At the start of 2014, the average wholesale price per pound for a young bull carcass was $3.88—89 percent higher than the price paid only six years earlier, according to the Colorado-based National Bison Association. “We’ve had stable pricing for three years now, and we hope to continue this stability,” says Jim Matheson, assistant director. “Processing was up 10 percent in 2013 over 2012. We’ve been able to develop a very good niche market.”

Bison meat is so popular right now that farmers can’t keep up with demand. Dave Carter, the association’s executive director, says demand nationwide is running 10-20 percent more than the supply available.

“We’re reaching out to young people especially, as prospective producers,” says Carter, who adds that his organization is doing everything it can to encourage the development of bison herds.

But Rob Ferguson, 47, co-owner of Cibola Farms, which was established in 1999, doesn’t need prodding to raise the ag industry’s newest cash cow. He already knows the value of the hulking creatures. “If someone is looking for non-feedlot meat, it’s hard to find,” says Ferguson. “That’s where the demand [for bison] will increase, and we’re going to ride along with that.”

Cibola Farms encompasses 500 acres (including 200 leased). Ferguson says he wishes he could acquire more acreage to expand his bison herd but can’t due to sky-high land prices in the region. For now, Cibola Farms’ goal is to process about 100 bison each year, mostly 2- and 3-year-olds. They sell directly to farmers’ markets in the Washington, D.C., region where consumers buy up the grass-fed, growth hormone-free meat. (Producers even shun antibiotics, except for treating an illness or injury.)

“Bison are healthy for you,” says Ferguson. Bison farmers say an ounce of bison meat is lower in fat calories and cholesterol than beef, pork or skinless chicken. Consumer education about the benefits of more healthily raised meat seems to be one of the keys to the current strength of the market.

“In the ’90s, it was a speculative industry, and it crashed,” says 55-year-old Frederick “Fritz” Wildt of Wild-T Bison Farm near Haynesville in Virginia’s Northern Neck. Wildt, as well as bison industry officials, say that two decades ago people were rushing into the bison industry, hoping it would be a path to a new meat market. But there was little promotion to stoke consumer demand for the meat. (At the time, the bison association was more focused on growing bison herds than in promoting sales of the meat.) One result was a glut of bison. Wildt says he knew a bison farmer who paid $5,000 for a bison cow and ended up selling it for $600 when the market collapsed.

“With prices so low, we thought it was good time to get in,” Wildt says of his and his wife Kerry’s decision to enter the bison business in 2003.

It was a good decision.    

When they began selling their first products in 2004, ground bison was selling for $4.50 a pound. Today, it’s $9.50. (Their most expensive bison cut is a tenderloin filet, which sells for $38 per pound.) Carter of the National Bison Association says that the organization is now actively promoting the meat, along with farmers’ markets and restaurants that sell bison products.

“Our problem is, we can’t supply how much they want,” says Wildt who also works as a mason and tiler. As a mom-and-pop operation, he says the couple’s 128-acre farm can only comfortably support about 60 bison.

“We do everything ourselves,” says Kerry Wildt, who handles marketing for the farm, and guides consumers in preparing bison meat for consumption. Bison meat cooks in half the time of beef, she says, so the best way to prepare it is low and slow. “If it’s not prepared right, it can be dry,” Fritz adds, “but if it’s prepared right, it’s very tasty and flavorful. It’s sweeter than beef.”     

The Wildts sell their bison products, from London broil to rib eye, at a farmers’ market in Williamsburg. They used to sell in a wider region, but they say their meat has become so popular in Williamsburg that their supply is largely consumed there. (Kerry says she has even received calls from representatives in China wanting to buy bison meat.)    

Not everyone is certain about eating bison meat, though. Fritz says some prospective customers have voiced concern that bison are an endangered species. His answer? “We say the best way to save bison is to eat one.”

Many chefs in Williamsburg and around the state have been creating recipes for bison, among them a bison burger curiously named “Bison by the Sea,” served at the Blue Goat in Richmond, which consists of a half-pound of ground bison topped with goat cheese and grilled shrimp. (The Blue Goat is supplied by Annie Oaks Bison Farm in Chase City.) Interest in bison from foodies is so high that the Virginia Chefs Association held its annual meeting at their farm in 2012, say the Wildts.

The benefits of bison extend beyond health. They are, in many ways, simpler to raise than cattle. Bison are still wild, so they are not as easily managed as domesticated cattle, but they are tough enough to live outdoors year-round (no barn needed) and eat brambles and other plants that domestic cattle usually shun. (Bison farmers rotate their pastures and move the animals around, according to the season and the availability of grass and hay.) Though bison can lose 10 to 25 percent of their body weight from January to April, in the spring when grass is plentiful, weight gains can be astonishing. Fritz says he once had a bull that gained more than 140 pounds from the end of April to the end of May.

While some bison farmers combine direct sales with retail farm stores, a few also have restaurants, serving bison from their own herd. That’s what Connie Hale, 51, and her partner Carla George, 52, do at Brush Creek Farm in Montgomery County. Their restaurant, Buffalo and More, is in the small community of Riner, on a road often frequented by Blue Ridge Parkway travelers.

They started raising bison in 2009, but prior to that, Hale, who has a degree in nutrition, ran various businesses and was an independent contractor for Federal Express. George has a farm background—her father is a cattle farmer.

Hale says visitors to the area will often come in for a meal, and then order bison products online. Like most bison farmers, George and Hale sell every part of a bison, from its meat to its horns to its hide; they even sell mounted bison heads and have shipped them all over the country.

Their bison herd, numbering nearly 60, roam across a 93-acre farm. George manages the farm while Hale takes care of the restaurant. They lease from a former bison producer who helped the women get started in the business.

Though the women welcome visitors to the farm, they ask them to keep their distance from the bison because they can be unpredictable, especially around people they don’t know. “Carla and I can go in with them, move them around. It’s important to be patient and very calm with them,” Hale says. “When you do that, they’re easy to get along with.” (Cibola Farms’ Ferguson says that during the breeding season in July and August, he is sometimes chased around the pasture by the aggressive bulls.)    

Hale and George hope to expand their herd and also their restaurant. Hale says the restaurant has prospered because of customer demand for bison dishes, including brisket, pot roast and barbecue. Hale’s favorite part of the bison? The tongue, she says, “People look at it as a delicacy.”

Hale always wanted to have her own restaurant, and having a niche product like bison to serve gave her and George a good reason to acquire one. Still, she’s surprised about how things have turned out. “If you asked me 20 years ago what I would be doing now, it never would have been running a restaurant and having a herd of bison,” Hale says.

“I’m just very proud of being part of something that is sustainable.”,,

Where’s the bison? A short list of Virginia’s restaurants serving bison:

Beer Run Restaurant, Charlottesville
Serving: Bison burger topped with Swiss cheese

The Blue Goat, Richmond
Serving: Bison by the Sea burger topped with shrimp

Buffalo and More, Riner
Serving: Buffalo Sloppy Joe, buffalo bratwurst sandwich and buffalo Philly steak

Corner Pocket Restaurant, Williamsburg

Serving: Black and blue bison burger with blackening spices and Gorgonzola cheese

Hazel River Inn, Culpeper
Serving: Bison fricadelles—bison ground with herbs and mushrooms, grilled over rainbow Swiss chard and served with wild berry preserves

Second Street Restaurant, Williamsburg
Serving: Grilled bison meatloaf

Ted’s Montana Grill, Alexandria & Arlington
Serving: Everything bison, from hand-cut steaks to burgers to bison nachos

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

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