Nat’l. Bison Association Executive Director discusses bison industry, market
The packed house at the 2008 Bison Gold Sale, held during the National Western Stock Show, made it perfectly clear. From a spiritual symbol within the storied past of Native American tribes to a current sports mascot for a local university, the American Bison’s stature continues to thrive in the western United States. Near extinction in the Old West, the bison (also called buffalo) population has recovered enough to make appearances in all the right places ” National Parks, wide-open ranches, dining establishments, and dinner plates.
The 2002 Census of Agriculture reported about 4,000 private ranches contained 232,000 head of bison across the U.S., while almost 25,000 head roamed in public herds. On top of that, the Canadian herd was estimated at 150,000 head. With those kinds of numbers to support it, the public’s taste for this alternative meat source is growing at a rapid pace.
“This last year (2007), it’s just really caught on fire,” said Dave Carter about the bison industry and the demand for bison meat products. Carter has been the Executive Director of the National Bison Association (NBA) for about eight years and was happy to discuss the large North American mammal during the 2008 National Western Stock Show’s Bison Gold Sale. “The demand is really going up,” added Carter. “Because people have recognized for a long time that it’s healthy.”
According to information found on the Internet, as well as the NBA’s own website, research shows bison is a nutrient-rich, dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, minerals, and fatty acids to its caloric value. Studies indicate it is lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol compared with beef, pork, or even skinless chicken.** Add that data to bison’s niche status as a “gourmet” meat with organic-friendly policies from the NBA and it’s easy to see why the industry almost tripled its sales over the last seven years.
“The thing that’s basically put us on fire the last couple of years is what we call ‘foodies,'” explained Carter. “They’re the folks that really like gourmet and great-tasting food. They’ve been the last ones to come to the party because of a perception buffalo is going to be ‘gamey’ and tough. They’ve come along and found out, ‘Wow. This is great-tasting stuff,'” he continued, noting a recent spread about bison meat in Bon Appetit magazine as well as by the Sausage King, Bruce Aidell. With all the new attention, Carter projects healthy demand in the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been up in double-digits the last three years in terms of growth,” he stated. “I don’t think it’s slowing down at all.”
Despite such rosy forecasts, Carter does not stick his head in the sand regarding a major necessity for the industry. It needs more ranchers.
“The challenge we’ve got right now in the industry is, we’ve got to get some new people,” said the NBA’s top executive. “We’re keeping up with demand but… we’re (harvesting) a lot of females to do that.”
While it should seem easy to convince people to jump on the bison-producing bandwagon, Carter realizes there are hurdles to overcome.
“In the last few years, the cattle market has been good,” he began on the topic. “If you’re making money raising cattle, why would you get out of it? And because of ethanol and corn, a lot of pastures are being plowed up to go to row crops. We’ve just got to get out there and convince some people that getting into buffalo right now is a good long-term trend.”
While potential bison ranchers mull this intriguing option, Carter relayed information to make the choice even more enticing.
“You’re going to spend a little extra on the front end on some fencing, but once those animals are out there, they take care of themselves,” Carter offered with the conviction of years of experience. “You don’t have to go out and pull calves in February and March with buffalo. They calve naturally. They take care of themselves. They hold up against predators. They don’t have a lot of sickness problems. Once you get them established, they’re very low maintenance.”
Another reason he thinks bison should be considered is the caliber of people already involved in the industry.
“We’ve got folks that have been around the business for awhile that are more than willing to help somebody get in,” said Carter. “I call them mentors. People that have been in it for fifteen-twenty years who say, ‘I’ve made enough of my own mistakes. We don’t need to have newcomers repeat those.'”
With 280% growth during the last seven years, double-digit growth expected for the future, and experienced ranchers willing to share successful strategies, it’s clear the NBA is working hard to ensure no one gets buffaloed by starting in this business.
For more information about North American Bison, visit the NBA website at http://www.bisoncentral.com.