Where the Buffalo Moan

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

The most prestigious auction is the Gold Trophy Show and Sale, which takes place at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Two years ago a championship bull sold to a Kentucky rancher for a record $101,000. The six-hour event will be held on January 22 this year, and Albrecht expects about 200 animals to be sold. "Part of the reason the National Bison Association is in Denver is because of the National Western Stock Show," he says, adding that there are probably more bison in North and South Dakota than in Colorado, "but there are more people in Denver."

In fact, the offices of the NBA are located on the stockyards grounds, at 4701 Marion Street. (Albrecht heads over to the Stockyards Inn a few yards away whenever he has a hankering for a buffalo burger himself.) The NBA has about 2,400 members in several countries and all fifty states, including 143 in Colorado; they range from producers and slaughterhouses to restaurants and ranchers to absentee bison owners, investors and marketing companies.

The association puts out several publications and reports and maintains a Web site and animal registry. It also sells buffalo key chains, coffee mugs, hats, T-shirts, pencils, earrings, magnets, videos, stuffed animals (buffalo, of course), books and other souvenirs. It doesn't sell any meat or meat by-products, however. It leaves that to its members.

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.

"I haven't heard of anybody having any trouble selling their product," April Chaffin says. "There are buyers for every single part, from the tail to the tongue. You'll see more and more involvement in bison ranching, since people are switching from cattle because it's easier to turn a profit -- and it's healthier."

That's the war cry -- the same one you'll hear from McFarlane, Albrecht, Sexhus and just about everyone involved in the industry.

Classified as a game animal, bison are much healthier eating than cattle, and the meat has a lot less fat. For example, 100 grams of buffalo has only 3 grams of fat and 120 calories, compared to 7 grams of fat and 167 calories for the same amount of chicken, and 14 grams of fat and 210 calories for beef. In addition, most buffalo ranchers don't use the chemicals or growth hormones that they do with cattle.

Buffalo can be butchered into the same cuts as beef, but the meat usually needs to be cooked at a lower temperature because it has so much less fat. Richer, sweeter and more intense than beef, the taste is often described as "what beef tasted like thirty years ago" or "what beef wishes it tasted like."

Nevertheless, since 130,000 head of cattle are killed every day in the United States versus only 20,000 to 30,000 head of buffalo in an entire year, bison meat won't be competing with beef anytime soon.

"Bison is not a staple food; it's not vying to replace beef on the housewife's menu for the kids," Sexhus says. He compares it to lobster and quail and other specialty meats that people are willing to pay more for on an occasional basis because they like the taste or they like the health benefits.

"Buffalo isn't affordable to everyone in the U.S., and that's too bad," adds McFarlane. "You hate to be part of an elitist industry. But I think it will always maintain a premium compared to beef. People pay a premium for extra lean beef, and we are better, so they will pay a premium for us."

But it's the premium price, of course, that's the problem.

As part of the terms of the bonus buy, the bison industry had to promise the USDA that it would spend more money on marketing to prevent another surplus from developing. "We are stressing to them that they have a long-term problem unless they find long-term markets in the commercial world," says the USDA's Cope.

That's a strategy that the movers and shakers have been diligently working to put into place. The NABC has implemented a policy -- unanimously approved by all of its members -- that requires ranchers to donate 7 percent of the proceeds from every animal they sell to the co-op's marketing and research program.

The NBA has implemented a voluntary donation program in which members are asked to give $1 for every bull and $2 for every cow they sell; so far, that program has raised about $10,000.

In early 1999, the NABC opened a subsidiary in Omaha, Nebraska, solely to market and sell the meat provided by its members. North American Provisioner Inc. sells everything from tenderloins and flank steaks to burgers, hot dogs, meatballs, chili and jerky, all under the Buffalo Nickel brand name. In June it took over Ted Turner's sales and marketing company, U.S. Bison, which was concentrated in the southeast United States. And in October, Dot Foods, a massive nationwide food distributor, agreed to be the sole redistributor for North American Provisioner in all fifty states.

"We put over $2 million into our marketing program in just one year," Sexhus says. "It's a professional approach. We're going at it the way anyone in the food industry would."

Before that, the co-op had relied on the Denver Buffalo Company and others to sell its products; now it will try to compete with those companies. "The Denver Buffalo Company was doing a lot of our marketing, and now we are doing a lot of our own," Sexhus says. "Will has been good for the industry and this co-op. We now compete with him directly in some areas, but Denver won't be a major focus. We're more interested in other heavily populated and affluent areas, like New York, Atlanta, Chicago and the West Coast, where people are more health- and calorie- and fat-conscious."

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