Making buffalo pay
Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
Anyone looking at the buffalo ranching industry over the past decade would see signs of both promise and disappointment. In the early to mid '90s, so many ranchers wanted in that the price of "herd stock" - or a starter herd - quadrupled. Ranchers were making so much money selling animals to other ranchers that they plain forgot about selling meat. The North Dakota-based North American Bison Cooperative built up such huge unsold inventories that the federal government bailed them out last year, not exactly good press for a growing industry or for advocates of prairie restoration.
Closely observing these trends was Sam Hurst, a recently arrived South Dakota bison rancher. Hurst was a Los Angeles-dwelling producer for NBC's Today Show who did a story on the Poppers in 1991. He grew so enamored of the Buffalo Commons vision and the work of one dedicated rancher in particular - South Dakota's Dwayne Lammers - that in 1993 he, with his wife and two children, upped and moved to the Black Hills. Now, with rancher Dan O'Brien, he has founded the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, which essentially hand-sells prime cuts of free-roaming, native grass-fed buffalo.
Hurst is appalled by the industry's straight imitation of the beef model: feedlots, routine antibiotics, castration, selective breeding, artificial insemination.
"Why in the world would we want to take a noble, native beast of the Great Plains and put it in feedlots?" he asks. "That's not what gourmet restaurants and cooks are interested in. They already have black Angus. And then all the cost advantages of raising wild animals are lost to you."
Sadly and unnecessarily, Hurst says, about 95 percent of the bison meat sold is feedlot finished. "It strikes me as a violation of the values Frank and Deborah put together," he says. "They imagined restoration. I don't think in their wildest dreams they ever imagined feedlots."
Hurst believes there is an untapped market of consumers who care enough about authenticity and prairie restoration that they will buy his product. One model he seeks to emulate is The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Beef, marketed to high-end restaurants and consumers as natural, eco-friendly meat raised by ranchers who meet conservation criteria.
In 1999, its first in business, Wild Idea sold 34 boxes of various cuts at $255 a box, between double and triple the price of beef, and a price similar to feedlot bison. Last year it sold 85 boxes, and this year it hopes to triple sales with an Internet site and direct marketing. Ultimately, Hurst envisions partnering with other ranchers who agree to strict criteria of raising integrated, stable herds, feeding animals only on native grasses and working to improve the range.
"I see an alliance of ranches working together with some outside capital," Hurst says. "Why not go to Microsoft or Intel who cares about conservation and say, 'look, here's what we need, why don't you underwrite a million dollars of native grass seed?' If a rancher does a conservation easement, we'll re-seed his range. But the whole thing has to hinge on being a successful business. If you're going to re-introduce bison to the Great Plains, you have to sell the meat and you have to make it pay."