Ten years ago, Brian Farmer was cramming for his SATs, making plans for the senior prom, and hanging out with friends, like a typical teenager. Unlike his New Hampshire classmates, however, he was also simultaneously launching a buffalo ranch.
On pasture fields leased from his family in Hillsboro, in southern New Hampshire, five of the massive, dusky animals so redolent of the Old West became the focus of his fledgling farm, christened the Yankee Farmer's Market.
Now averaging 35 head, Mr. Farmer's small ranch, which he runs with his wife, Keira, is a veteran of the bison industry, in a region where the meat largely remains a curiosity.
"I think some people around here thought I was a little nuts when we started, and that it wouldn't last long," says Farmer, smiling modestly. But his student loans at the University of New Hampshire were paid back before an engineering degree was completed, thanks to mail-order bison steaks.
Several big bulls in his herd 1,300-pound animals with wooly coats and thick, pointed horns gather at the fence of the 16 acres of pasture as Farmer tosses some hay into troughs. They are a free-range herd, and feed on natural grasses, grain, and hay. They're often docile, but can certainly be dangerous. When Farmer says he has his hands full with tending the herd, you believe him. But he says the real trick is marketing his bison steaks, roasts, and sausages to a sometimes squeamish public.
Farmer and other proponents of bison synonymous with buffalo say that taste for the meat is steadily growing. Supply, however, currently far exceeds demand. There are about 350,000 animals on private and public land across America, roughly one-tenth of them owned by media mogul Ted Turner. And each year, much of the meat goes unsold. In fact, the federal government has bought unsold buffalo meat from ranchers two years out of the last three.
But with the recent openings of the first two of Turner's bison-themed restaurants a planned national chain called Ted's Montana Grill in Columbus, Ohio, and Peachtree City, Ga., buffalo may find a stronger place in the nation's collective appetite.
What is helping the meat gain favor, says Farmer, are its nutritional benefits. He calls buffalo "the original American health food."
Comparisons with the big three beef, chicken, and pork are, indeed, favorable. Buffalo meat is much leaner than these alternatives. And due to federal regulations, bison are free of the antibiotics and hormones found in other animals.
The meat is not cheap, however. Mail-order roasts can be as much as three times the cost of beef, leading many to consider it too exotic for their budgets. And few grocery stores carry bison, leaving consumers to seek it out at specialty stores or from individual sellers like Farmer who package and freeze the steaks, and mail them to your door.
Bison must be prepared differently from beef, or else the meat will be tough and chewy. The secret to cooking prime bison cuts is temperature and time and attentiveness. "Slow and low" is the mantra of cooking bison. Cooked this way on a grill or stovetop, with frequent turning, the meat will stay tender and moist, retaining its flavor.
Buffalo's flavor is surprisingly sweet. There's no tallow aftertaste, due to low fat content. It has the same cuts as beef, and is also sold as ground-meat burgers, sausages, hot dogs, and jerky. Favorite seasonings and marinades for beef also work well with bison.
For recipes, Brian Farmer consults "The Buffalo Cookbook" by Ruth Mossok Johnston (Hancock House Publishers).