Where the Buffalo Moan
It takes someone with a bit of a culinary wild side to try the appetizer of sliced buffalo tongue with caper sauce at The Fort in Morrison. Even the bay-leaf-and-black-pepper seasoning doesn't change the fact that you are about to bite into, well, the tongue of a buffalo.
But, hell, this is Colorado. And when you're in Colorado, you do as a Coloradan would, or at least as you think a Coloradan would: You dig right into the rattlesnake medallions, the elk steak and, yes, the buffalo tongue.
Sam Arnold knows how this thought process works; he's been making a living off it for 38 years, not only with his landmark restaurant -- modeled after Bent's Fort in southeastern Colorado -- and a TV cooking show, but with a series of cookbooks that feature recipes from both the Old West and the New West, some of which he created himself. "We sell something around eight to ten tongues a night, and these are sliced in three to five slices for each order," he says. "Buffalo tongue has a history all its own. It was one of the greatest gourmet delicacies available right up until 1880.
"We serve buffalo testicles, too," he adds happily, "about 3,000 a week. That's the full gift from 1,500 unhappy buffaloes. The world is becoming much more gastronomically oriented. The people who can afford to eat at my place usually have the intellect to enjoy experimental types of food and aren't the people who are intellectually stuffed up and say, 'Ooh, I could never put a buffalo tongue in my mouth -- just bring me an omelette.'"
Adventurous eaters arrive every day at The Fort from all over Colorado, the country and the world to try the delicacies that Arnold serves, and they're not afraid to pay the price (that buffalo tongue appetizer runs $9.99). After all, can you really put a value on the opportunity to eat the wild, wild West?
"We serve just over 50,000 buffalo entrees a year: New York strips, filets, tenderloins and prime rib. We also make our own buffalo sausage, called boudie," Arnold says. "In addition, we serve buffalo marrow bones, which the French delegation during the G-8 summit kept coming back for, because they are superb eating."
The most popular cut of buffalo is the tenderloin -- $34.95 at The Fort -- "considered by many people as the finest piece of meat in the world," Arnold notes. "And I agree."
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Shannon County, South Dakota, where thousands of Oglala Sioux live in poverty, they are also eating buffalo meat, but not the finer cuts enjoyed by The Fort's diners. They're eating ground buffalo meat, what the bison industry calls "trim." There's not much bay-leaf-and-black-pepper seasoning around here, and not a tongue in sight. But since the meat is part of the federal food-distribution program, it's free.
"Shannon County is the poorest county in the country," says Craig Forman, regional public-affairs director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food and nutrition service based in Denver. "I've never seen people this destitute who walked in looking for their monthly allotment."
Most of the Pine Ridge residents who participate in the USDA's food distribution -- about 6,000 people each month -- pick up the bison trim (packaged in one-pound portions) and other food such as ground beef, beans, flour, fruits and vegetables at a giant warehouse on the reservation.
"Anyone who falls under the income guidelines is eligible," explains Pine Ridge program director Joe Bluehorse. "People really like the buffalo; it's real lean, good for you, and we have a lot of diabetics here, so it fell right in line with our fight against diabetes." A traditional food for Indians, the bison meat is made into everything from hamburger and sausage to stew and goulash, as well as a Sioux meal called wasna, for which it is dried like jerky and mixed with fat and berries.
The prime cuts of the buffalo -- steaks, prime rib and roasts -- are snapped up by restaurants like The Fort, but this meat accounts for only 50 percent of the animal. The other half, the half that went to Pine Ridge, is essentially just a bunch of burger. And although the people who raise and sell buffalo like to compare it to lobster, veal, lamb and other specialty meats, the average customer at the supermarket still sees ground buffalo as expensive ground beef.
At a wholesale cost of about $3.30 to $3.60 a pound and a retail cost of about $4.50 to $4.99 a pound for trim, the bison industry couldn't sell this meat because it couldn't -- wouldn't -- compete with beef, which sells for about a third less. Instead, bison boosters begged the federal government to buy more than two million pounds of ground buffalo at market rates in order to keep the price from collapsing, a disastrous prospect for what is still a fledgling industry.
The USDA, which buys a minimum of $500 million of excess food every year, complied; it bought more than $8 million worth of excess trim in 1998 and 1999 and shipped it to dozens of Indian reservations all over the country.
But now the excess supply of trim is building up again, and even if the people who requested the previous USDA buy ask for another -- which they say they won't -- the federal government is unlikely to cut such a deal again. And so the bison industry will need to make some rapid changes if it wants to keep the price of ground meat from crashing.
"Everybody wants steaks, but it's tougher to sell burger," says Sam Albrecht, executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association. "The fact that a surplus exists or did exist is true. It's tough. We're new. We're growing. We seem to be doing well, but we need to move more ground meat."
Albrecht speaks in a diplomatic way and can even be equivocal at times -- the NBA tries to represent all sides of the increasingly fractious industry -- but he's not afraid to point out what needs to be done to increase demand: First, the country "needs to be educated about the good taste and health benefits" of buffalo meat; second, "our members need to come up with new and better ways to promote their products"; and third, he says in a whisper, "maybe we need to review the price structure for ground bison." In other words, maybe the buffalo burger simply costs too much.
Opinions on this last point range as far as the two centers of the bison industry.
In agrarian North Dakota -- home to a huge number of buffalo ranchers, a large and powerful bison ranching cooperative and North Dakota State University's bison research program -- the people who raise buffalo believe that lower wholesale prices for ground bison meat will translate into lower prices for the animals they are raising and selling.
In slick Denver -- home to the NBA, the Denver Buffalo Company and several upscale Old West restaurants like The Fort and the Buckhorn Exchange -- salesmen think the bison industry can still make everyone rich even with lower prices, because a less expensive product will mean more customers can buy it.
"Who's right? It's tough to tell," Albrecht says. "There is a segment who thinks we still need to see the prices remain high. But the other way of thinking is that if there is really a surplus, basic marketing says if you lower the price, you increase demand. There's two ways to skin the same cat.
"We are growing at 15 to 20 percent every year, and our members are realizing more and more that we need to plan for the amount of meat we will see in the future. They want to continue to see [wholesale prices above $3]. Will they continue to see it? I don't know. There is a lot of demand out there and more that we need to create, but the market will determine the price of bison meat. Our members need to understand that, and then I think we'll take care of the trim problem -- or rather, it will take care of itself."
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody died in 1917. But not without taking a lot of buffalo with him.
Born in 1846, Cody was carrying mail for the Pony Express by the time he was fourteen, and a seasoned Civil War veteran by the time he was twenty. In 1867 he took the job that would make him famous: hunting buffalo to feed employees of the Kansas Pacific Railroad who were building a new line. (The railroads encouraged the destruction of the buffalo because the herds often wreaked havoc with the trains.)
Although he worked for the railroad only seventeen months, Cody claimed to have slaughtered 4,280 head of buffalo during that time. As a guide, a scout, an entertainer and all-round frontiersman, he would go on to kill many more.
For centuries, Native Americans had used North America's plentiful herds for everything from food to shelter to clothing to worship, but the unregulated slaughter of the buffalo in the late 1800s by men like Cody reduced the herds from about 60 million animals before the European colonization to fewer than 1,000 head by 1900. White hunters killed buffalo for food, but they took only the best parts -- the tongue, the hide, the roasts -- leaving the rest to rot, and many people, including Cody, killed them just for sport as part of tournaments. The U.S. Army also encouraged the mass killing of buffalo as a way to starve Indian tribes and convince them to stop fighting and move onto reservations.
Cody is one of the most recognizable figures of the Old West and became a legend later in his life when his exploits -- both real and made-up -- were popularized in dime novels and in Cody's traveling Wild West show. But he is vilified by many Native Americans, especially the Cheyenne, because he fought against them as part of the U.S. Fifth Cavalry and because he is a symbol of the destruction of their sacred buffalo.
Cody is buried in the Colorado foothills at the summit of Lookout Mountain, which looks down over a small herd of buffalo owned by the City of Denver. The herd was started in 1913 with seven animals, one of several attempts across the country to help repopulate the nearly extinct buffalo. Today the animals, 24 cows and two bulls, roam about 500 acres of the 23,500-acre Genesee Park and can cross I-70 through an underground tunnel. Visible from the highway, the herd has become a landmark and a symbol of the New/Old West.
In the 1930s, Denver started another herd in Daniels Park, just off I-25 near Sedalia. "They are mainly a tourist attraction, but the city auctions the surplus animals to bison ranchers every year," says A.J. Tripp, superintendent of the Denver Mountain Parks system. "They are a great animal -- easy keepers."
By the early 1970s, there were about 30,000 head across the country. But although buffalo had been a staple for the first residents of the West, it didn't start to catch on again as something to eat until later that decade, when a handful of wealthy and occasionally eccentric businessmen began to raise buffalo and market such buffalo by-products as clothes, painted skulls and meat. (Although the words "bison" and "buffalo" are used interchangeably, the American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo.)
In the 1980s, small cattle ranchers began to suffer as beef prices dropped dramatically. Some of the more adventurous ranchers took up bison -- in many cases, one animal at a time -- to supply the growing market. The industry got a big boost and a lot of publicity in the mid-'80s when Ted Turner, the outspoken, high-profile billionaire who founded CNN and Turner Network Television, bought a ranch and a few head of Kansas buffalo. (Now, with a herd of nearly 20,000 grazing on eleven ranches across the West, Turner is the biggest buffalo rancher in the nation.)
In 1989, a Denver hotel magnate named Will McFarlane decided to sell his Denver-based hotel empire and buy a 13,414-acre ranch in Ramah, Colorado. Like many of the other leaders of the bison industry -- including Turner and former Seagram's CEO Edgar Bronfman -- McFarlane made his millions in another industry and got interested in buffalo almost as a hobby. He and former partner Doug Stewart bought 150 head and began the Denver Buffalo Company. They raised bison for several years before McFarlane decided that there were other people who were doing it better; he sold the ranch in 1995 and now concentrates solely on the sale and marketing of bison products.
Today the Denver Buffalo Company is the largest marketer of bison products in the world, selling everything from fresh and frozen meat to buffalo leather clothing, accessories, artwork and jewelry.
McFarlane's empire includes the signature Denver Buffalo Company restaurant, at 1109 Lincoln Street, a deli, gift shop and art gallery next door, and a sprawling cluster of offices across the street on the ninth floor of the Chancery building, where he can look out the windows onto his restaurant. He also owns the Buffalo Bar and Grill in Idaho Springs and maintains an extensive Web site where customers can buy meat directly.
The company sells the equivalent of 200 to 400 animals a month and has sales between $7 million and $10 million a year, giving it between 20 and 25 percent of the entire market for USDA-approved bison meat.
Typically sporting jeans and a modest silver belt buckle with galloping buffalo, the 66-year-old McFarlane looks a little bit like rugged movie actor Jack Palance; he plays the part of the outdoorsman well, too. But McFarlane is as smooth a salesman as they come. Because of him, Denver has become a center of the bison industry. Because of him, the federal government agreed to prop up the prices of ground buffalo in 1998 and 1999.
"People who raise bison today are making a very, very good living," McFarlane says. "But that can end if the economics collapse. This is an industry that was created from scratch, and it is based on pure supply and demand. If you create too much supply, then prices will go down. That's it. So what happens if you grow supply by 20 percent and don't grow the demand at 20 percent? The answer is pretty clear."
What happened was that several million pounds of excess trim built up in freezers around the country. "This is an unsophisticated, agrarian industry," he says, "and some people didn't want anyone to know that this was happening. We knew it. The North American Bison Cooperative knew it, but the industry did not."
In late 1997, McFarlane and a local USDA representative met over a buffalo steak dinner at McFarlane's restaurant. The rep told him that with all this inventory of trim accumulating, he might consider something called Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of August 24, 1935, a government provision that allows the USDA to buy surplus agricultural products in order to keep prices from crashing. "And that started the wheels moving," McFarlane recalls.
In January 1998 he hired an agricultural lobbyist and went to Washington, D.C., with Ken Throlson, the chairman of the board of the New Rockford, North Dakota-based North American Bison Cooperative (NABC), a 350-member rancher-run cooperative that processes about two-thirds of the USDA-inspected buffalo meat for the U.S. market. "We did a full dog-and-pony show," McFarlane says. "Everyone from the USDA was there to sample product and eat it and hear about it."
The lobbyist also hit up Congress, especially lawmakers from Colorado and North Dakota. "It took us two months, but we educated Washington about what a bison was," McFarlane says, "and they took to it."
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."
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.
Land of Oz Meats, a wholesale and retail meat supplier in Salina, Kansas, sold 396,000 pounds of ground meat to the USDA for $1.4 million; Durham Meats, a major bison company in San Jose, California, unloaded 316,000 pounds at a cost of $1.1 million; USA Prime, a Denver-based bison brokerage company, sold 118,800 pounds for $403,000; and Medicine Lodge Ranches got rid of another 39,600 pounds for $136,000.
The NABC, which was founded in 1993 and slaughters about 11,000 bison every year in its state-of-the-art plant (it just announced that it is building a second slaughterhouse in Canada, where many of its members are), is the only bison plant in the United States that meets both USDA and European Union standards. Although Ted Turner is a major supplier to the co-op, it's possible that none of his meat went to the government since all of the meat is mixed together at the plant. "It was the press that caused the confusion," says the NABC's Sexhus. "It was presented as a bailout of the industry. Ted Turner is a major member, but he supplies a minority amount of our meat. I don't think he even did very much that year."
The last bonus buy was made on August 12, 1999, and distributed to several Indian reservations in November.
North Dakota State's Anderson, who works at the university's bison research facilities at Carrington, says he wouldn't support another bonus buy even if the industry did ask for one again.
"They needed to grow their market to keep up with the supply, but they weren't doing it," he says. "They realize what they need to do now -- they just need to execute. If they can't figure it out, then they deserve to suffer."
One of the best things about raising bison is that they give birth on their own.
"You don't have to pull calves in the spring like you do with cattle," says April Chaffin, who, with her family, owns the Buffalo Wilds Ranch northwest of Wellington. "Yes, your fencing and handling facilities have to be different. But other than that, most of us feel they should be left alone."
Chaffin, who is an officer in the 75-member Colorado Bison Association, owns only eight buffalo -- five females and three males -- and uses them as breeding stock. "We are in the growing mode right now," she explains.
Formerly cattle ranchers, the Chaffins exemplify the new breed of small ranchers involved in the bison industry. They make their money from eggs and hay, but eventually they hope to have enough buffalo to sell. "We raise bison because of the love of the animal," Chaffin says. "If we never made a penny profit on it, we would still do it. There is something about the romance of the Old West, the sheer size and majesty of the animal."
Standing anywhere from five feet to six feet tall at the hump, the woolly brown buffalo needs to be handled by ranchers only once a year -- for weighing, vaccinations and other necessities -- while cattle are handled much more often. Buffalo are wild animals and easier to frighten than cattle; they are very strong and can jump six feet high, which usually requires extra fencing. Although there's a saying that "you can get a bison to go anywhere he wants to go," most ranchers agree that bison are much easier to raise and produce than cattle.
Some bison ranchers merely raise the animals -- especially females, which are almost never butchered -- as breeding stock; others sell buffalo, mostly bulls, directly to restaurants or to big resellers like the Denver Buffalo Company and the NABC.
Most of the animals butchered for meat are bulls between 18 and 30 months old, weighing 950 to 1,250 pounds. Of that, about 450 pounds is usable meat; about half of that is trim. But older animals usually end up being ground up entirely for burger. "Meat that is 16 to 26 months of age is the best, and the animal should be finished on some grain for four to six weeks," says The Fort's Arnold. "Younger than 16 months and the meat doesn't have much flavor. Older than two and a half years or so and it begins to get strong and tough."
There are now somewhere between 313,000 and 340,000 buffalo in the country, all but 20,000 or so on private ranches (the rest are in publicly owned herds). This is up from about 240,000 at the end of 1997, Sam Albrecht says, "so private landowners have really helped the recovery of the bison."
Over the past ten years, the bison business has grown from a novelty into a $50 million industry, according to the NBA. At the 34th annual bison auction at Custer State Park, South Dakota -- considered the benchmark of bison auctions -- yearling bulls sold for an average of $1,051 this year, while yearling heifers sold for an average of $1,854; two-year-old pregnant heifers sold for an average of $3,419, while two-year-old bulls sold for an average of $1,426.
But the overall average price per animal was $1,500, way down from $2,800 per animal in 1998 and $2,000 in 1995. The average price in 1990 was about $800, and in 1980, it was about $500.
"I think the prices for females were very high for the past few years, and we've seen them come down to a more manageable level," Albrecht says. "We knew they would go down, but just not that much. The ones who are probably hurting right now are the ones who thought they could make money really quickly. Bull prices, on the other hand, are still constant, which means our producers are making a good profit."
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.
"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."
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."
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."
But marketing and distribution gains may take some time, and Sexhus acknowledges that the amount of surplus trim is growing fast. "There is a problem," he says. "An intermediate problem. Our inventories are higher than we would like. They are not as high as they were, but they may get up to where they were before."
Having studied the industry, researcher Vern Anderson says he believes the price of bison trim could fall without hurting anyone. "We have a unique view, and we can call them like we see them," he says. "I think bison is still a premium product, but there needs to be a price point where product is moved rapidly through the system. I believe there is a bright future for the bison industry. We just need to make something out of trim."
And someone needs to do something fast, as the industry continues to grow rapidly. At the current growth rate of 15 to 20 percent a year, there could theoretically be more than two million buffalo by 2010. That's a lot of potentially unsold burger.
"It will grow, because we've taken the bison out of the zoo mentality," McFarlane says. "If you want to grow something, you eat it. That's why there are more chickens than bald eagles."
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