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 market is big enough for both, McFarlane insists: "They don't have to go after our customers, and we don't have to go after theirs."

Nevertheless, McFarlane has aggressively gone after just about everything, from professional sports arenas to chain restaurants to the military to supermarkets. His company runs carts at all three major sports venues in Denver -- Coors Field, Mile High Stadium and the Pepsi Center -- as well as several minor venues and Denver International Airport. He also sells to the U.S. Navy and other branches of the federal government as part of its own food-service operation; to supermarkets like Safeway; and to restaurants and restaurant chains through several national distribution companies, including Sysco Corporation, the largest food distributor in the country.

"Selling directly is also something we are beginning to pursue by developing in the next year a tremendous presence on the Internet," he says. "We had a bang-up Christmas, 30 or 40 percent more sales than we anticipated, all because of the Internet."

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.

Although the Denver Buffalo Company used to be the NABC's largest customer and the NABC was the Denver Buffalo Company's largest supplier, both organizations have moved on; McFarlane buys a lot of his meat from other suppliers now, including several in Canada. "We are still members," he says, "but we wanted to reach out beyond the co-op rather than have a single source of supply."

There are other big marketers, too: Durham Meats in California (which counts The Fort as a customer); Georgetown Farm in Virginia; Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Denver (which sells to both The Fort and King Soopers); Land of Oz Meats in Kansas; Sayersbrook Bison Ranch in Missouri; and Great Lakes Buffalo Company in northern Michigan.

A master of the sales pitch -- "We raise bison, we market buffalo, because that's what people understand" -- McFarlane says selling buffalo is different from selling other products.

"Our job is education, and it's been an eight-year message for me to explain the heritage of the buffalo and the health benefits of eating it. People say, 'I thought buffalo were extinct,' or 'Aren't they an endangered species?' Some of them say, 'Eww, I wouldn't eat that -- it's wild.' The Indians ate buffalo every day, but now people on this continent don't know a thing about it. Our job is education. We're all missionaries. There's nothing bad about buffalo. It's apple pie and the American flag. We're a feel-good story."

But as the amount of surplus trim continues to build while the price of the animals drops, some people in the bison industry might not feel too good in the coming months. If the education and marketing campaigns don't increase the demand for ground buffalo meat quickly, the only answer may be to lower the price -- at least temporarily.

"I sell 6,000 pounds of ground buffalo a month to Safeway stores on the Front Range, and they sell it for $4.99 a pound," McFarlane says. "But I believe that if it were $3.99 a pound, we'd sell a lot more."

McFarlane also believes that the price of ground bison meat should come down slowly -- "not way down, but down" -- in order to sell more meat and prevent a crash. But if the retail price goes down, then so does the wholesale price. And if the wholesale price goes down, then the price of the animals might go down, too.

"It's traditional to think this way, that the meat price affects the price of the herd," McFarlane says. "But I believe the price of the meat can and will drop and still not affect the value of the herd."

"Will's goal is to sell product," says Sexhus, who has about 300 bison on his ranch near Leads, North Dakota. "But I'm a rancher, and as ranchers, we are determined to protect the value of our animals and not to fall into the trap of every other segment of agriculture." In the beef industry, for example, there are only three major companies that buy animals from the thousands of producers across the country. When these companies find that there is too much supply and not enough demand, they lower the prices that they are willing to pay for cattle, leaving producers with no other option but to sell low.

"Will McFarlane is looking at it in that way, in the classic way that agriculture has gone -- beat down the producer and put the money in the hands of the marketers. That's what marketers want, to buy the animals as cheap as possible. Then it's easier for them to sell more and make a bigger margin. But you've got to remember, you are talking to a producer here. In the bison industry, we are a bunch of renegades; we are determined it's not going to happen to us.

"If you look at the annual per capita consumption of bison, it's about .02 pounds a year," he says. "That comes out to something like a quarter of a teaspoon. Very clearly, with that low of a consumption rate, it's not a price issue as much as it is a marketing and distribution issue."

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