An American original, the bison makes a remarkable comeback—and a positive contribution to Southern agriculture
by Bryan Hunter
Photos by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields
The comte de buffon was, by anyone’s standard, a first-rate naturalist, one of that type of eighteenth-century polymathic noblemen who put his vast resources and superior brain to the furtherance of scientific knowledge. But like so many of his breed, he was also an incurable snob, particularly towards the New World. Buffon made the absurd assertion that the Americas were intrinsically inferior; thus, it naturally followed that their inhabitants—both human and animal—were inferior.
Always a bit chippy when pressed to defend America’s honor, particularly against European affronts, Thomas Jefferson set about to prove that, at least in this regard, Buffon was a buffoon. He paraded out a menagerie of the largest of North American animals, some extinct (he was keen on obtaining a complete wooly mammoth skeleton). Among them, he played the American “buffalo” like an ace of spades.
A fully mature wild Bison bison bull is certainly an impressive creature, weighing over a ton—the largest wild American Bison ever recorded tipped the scales at a walloping 2,800 pounds. One subspecies, the woods bison (the more poetic Bison bison athabascae), holds pride of place as the largest extant terrestrial animal in North America. With its massive shoulders, a horned Mack truck for a head, and a top-end speed of forty miles per hour, the bison should have been enough to leave Buffon shaking in his powdered periwig had he had the misfortune to encounter a thundering herd on the North American plains.
Spotting a UFO
Bison are also quite toothsome. That and their imposing presence in their natural range (comprising the grasslands just west of the Appalachians stretching from extreme northwestern Canada to northwestern Mexico) conflicted with Manifest Destiny. It’s a familiar story: by the late nineteenth century, the iconic American bison was pushed to the edge of extinction.
So imagine my shock one day while cruising down a road in rural Virginia when I saw a cow that didn’t register just right in my mind. I imagine it was a bit like spotting a UFO. Bison! (Certainly an alien species in that neck of the woods.) Turns out bison farming, while not exactly a ubiquitous agricultural pursuit, is certainly a viable one in the South. We’ve all heard of the larger herds further west which thrive in the arid climate of great plains (Ted Turner boasts over 55,000 heads of bison on his various ranches). But here in the South, bison now pepper the hills of Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia.
“Bison aren’t naturally acclimated to our region,” notes Rob Ferguson, who began raising bison thirteen years ago on Cibola Farms, five hundred rolling hills in bucolic Culpeper, Virginia, where it’s hard to believe you’re seventy miles southwest of DC. When he established Cibola, Ferguson wasn’t exactly a newcomer to bison. Even while studying journalism as an undergraduate followed by graduate school in international trade, he was always interested in wildlife management. “I never thought about it as a career,” he says, “but then it occurred to me I could blend my interest in wildlife management with my business training.” Growing up in California during the “sprouts” craze, Ferguson ate a lot of bison as a red meat alternative to beef even before it became common.
He was always attracted to the health benefits (bison has more protein yet fewer grams of fat, less cholesterol, and fewer calories than beef, pork, or chicken). But his business acumen also attracted him to the entrepreneurial viability of bison. “They can’t be artificially inseminated, so you can only grow them slowly—the natural way. I knew the industry could only grow so fast, so I wouldn’t risk getting swallowed up by corporate farming.”
Ferguson waded rather than dove into bison farming by investing in a farm in Farmville, two hours south of Culpeper, putting in long hours to gain hands-on experience. “That’s a relative term,” Ferguson says. “Bison farming is very hands-off, except when you’re corralling them.” The thought of trying to coax a one-and-a-quarter- ton wild animal into a confined space not wholly of his own volition can be a perplexing exercise. “It can be dangerous,” Ferguson says, recalling a couple of rounds he went with a young bison. “He just kept beating the heck out of me.” He laughs about it now. “He didn’t weigh much, but you could tell he had bad intentions.”
Ferguson is an innovator. He embraced the humane circular corral very soon after livestock savant Temple Grandin envisioned it, even before cattle ranchers widely adopted it. Climate presents one of the primary challenges of raising bison in the Southeast, where it’s much damper than in the bison’s native range, making the animals more susceptible to parasitic disease. Ferguson observed that deer, which are virtually unaffected by parasitic worms, include pine straw in their diet and discovered the needles contain substances that kill parasites. When he offered a bale of pine straw to a few bison, they devoured it in no time flat.
“Here I was raising a completely organic animal, but I was having to load them up with de-wormers.” Now when he markets his product at three of the largest area farmers markets (as well as on Cibola’s website) he’s proud to be able to tell his customers that they’re getting a truly natural meat.
Natural Free-Range Grazers
In Rutherfordton, North Carolina, just west of Asheville, Jerry Nelon maintains a small herd of about fifty-five head of bison, but he harbors dreams of growing his operation (“Right now it’s my golf game,” he says). For the time being, Nelon markets his bison meat solely by word of mouth, but he has a vision of converting part of his barn into a shop and doing direct sales right on the farm. For inspiration, he looks to Carolina Bison, just down the road on the outskirts of Asheville, where in 1985 Dr. Frank J. King became an early Southeastern pioneer in bison farming. As a medical doctor, King, like Ferguson, became easily sold on the health benefits of bison. Today, Carolina Bison, still a family operation, boasts one of the largest herds in the Southeast.
Besides the health benefits of eating bison, the animal’s efficiency impressed Nelon from the start. “It takes ten times more grazing land to make one pound of beef than it takes to make one pound of bison,” Nelon says. As natural free-range grazers who are also surprisingly light on their hooves, they have minimal impact on their environment. While bison have an enduring reputation as tough customers, they’re actually quite docile unless provoked. “My bulls will eat out of my hand,” Nelon boasts.
Getting a true sense of the scale of a mature bull is difficult when observing them at a distance in a large pasture. But facing one from two feet puts its enormity and immense power in perspective. It’s a giddy, headlong rush that gropes back in time and rekindles a feeling I had as a boy when I rode my bicycle without training wheels for the first time. As Jerry Nelon’s gaze shifts out over the pasture towards the rest of his herd, his admiration is written on his features. “They’re beautiful animals,” he says. “I just love looking at them.”