Where the Buffalo Moan

They’ve been worshiped, they’ve been slaughtered. Now bison are back—so why won’t you buy some burger?

On April 30, 1998, the USDA issued a press release: "The Agricultural Marketing Service will purchase up to $2.5 million of ground bison to help improve prices to bison producers. Dr. Enrique Figueroa, administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, said the bison industry, an emerging agricultural enterprise made up of small producers, is experiencing excess supplies of bison trim which has resulted in a decline in producer prices. This purchase will help offset the impact of the surplus supply of bison meat and assist the industry at a time when it is striving to expand its domestic and export markets, Dr. Figueroa added. The ground bison meat purchases will be distributed to federal food assistance programs."

The USDA bought 673,000 pounds of bison trim from June through November of that year at an average cost of $3.70 per pound. Nearly 80 percent of it -- roughly $1.9 million worth -- came through the Denver Buffalo Company, which had agreed to buy it from the NABC specifically for the "bonus buy," as it was called by the USDA. The rest of the meat came from Bridgewater Quality Meats, a butcherhouse in Bridgewater, South Dakota, and Medicine Lodge Ranches, which raises bison in Idaho and Utah.

Anyone was eligible to bid for the bonus buys as long as he met certain standards; for example, the bison had to be slaughtered at a federally inspected plant, and the meat had to be packaged using specific requirements. The USDA then accepted the lowest bids. "For that year, it really helped, especially the co-op," says McFarlane. "But it didn't finish the job."

Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Buffalo Will: The Denver Buffalo Company's Will McFarlane thinks the bison industry is over the hump.
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.
Brett Amole
Gastronomical proportions: Bison fan Sam Arnold holds down The Fort.

So McFarlane went back to the USDA with NABC chief executive officer Dennis Sexhus and National Bison Association president Del Hensel to ask for another buy. And on March 23, 1999, the agency announced it would buy $6 million of bison trim.

That's when the trouble started.

"A lot of cattlemen were upset about us buying it because of the cost of the bison per pound," says Barbara Cope, who is in charge of buying commodities for the agricultural marketing service, a division of the USDA. "And a lot of people thought it was just about Ted Turner."

Many people -- and there is a large file in Cope's office full of angry letters -- wanted to know why the federal government was spending $6 million to subsidize a billionaire like Turner while cattle ranchers, or "producers," as they are called, were struggling to make ends meet. Even some bison ranchers -- who said they didn't know about the trim surplus -- were disturbed to hear that their industry was taking government money.

But the bonus-buy program had nothing to do with Turner, Cope points out. Although he is one of the NABC's largest providers, Turner didn't lobby for the buy. Besides, she adds, the USDA spends money to buy surplus agricultural products whenever prices are threatened or depressed.

In fact, the USDA spends at least $500 million every year on everything from meat, poultry and fish to fruit, vegetables, eggs, beans and nuts. These are regular subsidies that in a typical year include several hundred million dollars for beef and pork. The food is distributed as part of the National School Lunch program and other federal food assistance programs, such as the one on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

In addition, the USDA can spend millions more on "bonus buys" under special circumstances. In fiscal year 1999, for example, the agency spent $117.3 million on bonus buys, including $77 million for pork and $19.9 million for beef. It also bought salmon, tuna and bison last year. "When you look at the level of support for bison, it's very small in comparison to beef and pork and even poultry," Cope says.

The decision to buy bison trim was based on a study -- commissioned by the USDA -- by North Dakota State University researcher Vern Anderson. "There weren't a lot of statistics on bison, and this study showed us the break-even costs for the industry and what impact a bonus buy would have," Cope says. "Our indication was that this would help all producers, many of them with small herds of only thirty to forty animals."

"Forget Ted Turner," McFarlane adds. "You have to forget him. He's just a high-visibility person. He and I are good friends. He's been here four or five times, and we talk about bison, but this isn't about him. The USDA kick-started our industry, and we are much more stable now. We are not going back to make an application again. It was a two-time deal. There is no need for another year, unlike beef, salmon and pork."

He scoffs at the cattle ranchers who complained about the bonus buy. "Dumb hypocrites," he calls them. "They just didn't get it. I said, 'Thank you for recognizing us. I'm flattered that you even recognize my industry.'"

Under this second bonus-buy program, the Denver Buffalo Company sold 830,800 pounds of bison trim to the USDA -- much of it again purchased by McFarlane from the NABC -- for about $2.9 million, nearly half the USDA's entire buy; the government paid an average of about $3.50 per pound.

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