Where the Buffalo Moan

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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.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes