KANSAS CITY — Prior to 1600, an estimated 30-60 million bison roamed North America. Before the turn of the 20th century, the estimate dropped to below 1,000. But the strong and majestic animal now numbers roughly 400,000 and the bison business is booming. Ranchers, processors, chefs, environmentalists, diners and retail shoppers have all contributed to the bison’s resurgence in its native land, but consumers want more.
Bringing the bison back has proved beneficial in a number of ways — from restoring the North American ecosystems to an attempt to atone for the decimation of the past. But the American consumer might benefit the most. In today’s health-conscious food landscape, bison meat provides the taste quality of red meat with a desirable nutrition profile.
Benefits of the bison
For health-conscious consumers, bison provides a red meat containing significantly fewer calories and less fat than beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service states that 0.22 lbs of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat, while the same amount of choice grade beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat, but not all consumers shopping with health and wellness in mind count calories and grams of fat.
The heartiness of bison contributes to its attractiveness, not only for the rancher, but for the consumer looking for specific production attributes when purchasing food. The bison’s natural lifestyle lends itself to sustainability, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
Bison prefer to live outdoors year round, alleviating the need for any buildings to provide shelter. That means no maintenance, repair, energy consumption or anything else that goes along with housing animals. Bison do well eating most of the grasses in the U.S., cutting down or eliminating costs associated with commercial feed. Consequently, bison add benefits to the environment. Along with this, U.S. consumers appreciate the more natural processes used by ranchers to raise bison.
Use of artificial growth hormones in bison are prohibited by the federal government, and according to the National Bison Association (N.B.A.), antibiotic use is limited to treating only animals with an illness with a minimal amount needed, according to industry protocols.
“It’s illegal to use growth hormones in bison. It’s illegal to use antibiotics for growth purposes in bison,” said Dave Carter, executive director for the N.B.A. in Westminster, Colo. “When you talk about sustainable food, what’s more sustainable than the animal that’s been a part of this ecosystem for thousands of years?”
For ranchers, processors and distributors, bison offers a segment that has shown steady growth and continues to gain popularity.
Mr. Carter believes the consumer demand will continue to grow due to a sweet spot within three strong trends happening in food — the healthy diet, natural and sustainable food, and consumers looking for adventurous taste.
People have made the connection between diet and their health and longevity, Mr. Carter said, and people understood the story regarding natural and sustainable food. But when it came to taste, Mr. Carter found the general public to be wary at first.
“They were a little suspicious about the taste because they’d never taken a bite,” Mr. Carter said. “We found that once people take their first bite of bison, and find out how good it tastes, they start looking for some more. From that aspect we see that the consumer demand is going to increase.
“Our main challenge now is to keep up with the production. Whereas a decade ago, I was spending 90% of my time talking to the consuming public or the general public about eating bison, I’m now spending 90% of my time talking to folks about building the herds or getting into the bison business so that we can keep up with that demand.”
Lee Graese, founder and co-owner of North Star Bison, Rice Lake, Wis., agrees with Mr. Carter. From the second quarter of 2015 to the second quarter of 2016, Mr. Graese and North Star have seen about 50% growth and a lot had to be left on the table. “We could sell way more if we had the animals,” Mr. Graese said. “I think we figured we needed about 24,000 more head just to meet the demand that came at us in the first three months of this year. That’s over and above our normal business. We couldn’t find that. They are not there.”
North Star sells to food service and retail stores and ships direct to customers and has very recently seen some changes in the demand curve as its wholesale business grows.
“The wholesale side is really taking off,” Mr. Graese said. “It might be 70% wholesale, which would be both food service and retail stores with 30% direct to the consumer.
“The highest demand right now is the trim, the ground products. That is what’s driving everything right now.”
Growing the niche
The N.B.A. and producers across the country are determined as an industry to keep the bison a niche product.
“Being a niche product means we’re going to raise the animals in a different way,” Mr. Carter said. “We’re going to market ourselves in a different way and we’re going to really reach out and talk to folks who are willing to pay a premium for products that have certain attributes.” And although the consumer demand continues to grow, Mr. Carter sees no future where increased bison production will exceed a niche market.
“The chasm between where we are and where mainstream commodity meats are is pretty significant,” he said. “Last year for example, we processed about 60,000 head of bison under U.S.D.A. and state inspection. That’s what the cattle industry does before noon on an average day.”With the average person eating about 55 lbs of beef per year and .08 lbs of bison per year, according to Mr. Carter, U.S. bison production could triple and still be at a point where the average person eats one bison burger a year. “We’d soak up all of our demand,” he said. “We see upside…a lot of opportunities.”