A cowboy rides along a buffalo herd during the 39th annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup in 2004 near Custer, S.D. Consumers are taking to bison meat more and more nowadays. - AP

Bison growers ride herd on success

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The North American bison is continuing its cross-country stampede into restaurants, butcher shops and natural food stores.

Red meat's burgeoning niche industry grew 21 percent during the first half of 2007, with 23,796 buffalo slaughtered during the six-month period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That's dramatic growth, said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, but it's nowhere near the beef industry's 125,000 head a day.

And that's OK, Carter said.

"We're always going to be a niche part of the red meat market," he said. "We don't ever see ourselves being another beef, but the type of growth that we're experiencing is real healthy."

Ranchers, restaurateurs, retailers and other buffalo aficionados are gathering in South Dakota's Black Hills this week for the third-ever International Bison Conference, a once-every-seven-years occurrence — though not by design.

The inaugural 1993 meeting in Wisconsin and a 2000 conference north of the border in Edmonton, Alberta, mostly consisted of U.S. and Canadian ranchers talking about their herds, Carter said.

The 2007 version kicked off Tuesday afternoon with a welcome ceremony at Mount Rushmore National Memorial headlined by media mogul and bison rancher Ted Turner and former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle.

The four-day agenda features a more diverse set of topics than in past conferences. Sessions will cover not only animal production but also history and heritage, nutrition and culinary techniques.

Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, will talk about the bison's role in the sustainable food movement. The nonprofit organization aims to preserve traditional foodways and educate people about food as a center of community.

Lesser said bison is not only a nutritious native meat with a distinct taste, but it also supports a healthy local food system. Locally produced fruits, vegetables and cattle keep local dollars in communities and support independent restaurateurs, she said.

"It's a great example of a healthy food and traditional food," Lesser said. "And when we see the potential or a market to grow in a sustainable way, then we do things to try to throw our weight behind it."

Millions of bison once roamed the North American plains, but their numbers dropped to about 1,000 by the late 1800s. Some 500,000 bison now graze on ranches in the U.S. and Canada, and the species' remarkable comeback can be attributed to private ranchers raising buffalo as a food source for the past quarter century.

"It's kind of counterintuitive that the best way to save a bison is to eat it," he said.

The bison industry grew rapidly in the 1990s as an alternative to a slowing cattle market, but the cattle's small numbers, combined with heavy bidding, quickly drove up prices. Demand soared for tenderloins and ribeyes, but producers were left with a glut of burger meat and chuck roasts that weren't selling. The industry started to falter.

The recent comeback, which began in 2003, is based on a more balanced product line — with pot roast, skirt steaks and ground buffalo selling as well as the choice cuts — and a better-established distribution network, Carter said.

The more mature industry now sits in the sweet spot of three major trends in the marketplace — the move toward sustainable and locally produced food, consumers' desire for different food experiences and their push for healthy foods, Carter said.

Buffalo meat is low in fat and high in protein, and the animals roam freely, feed on grass and cannot be fed chemicals or growth hormones, he said.

Restaurants buy between 70 and 80 percent of the buffalo meat produced.

Bison has been a staple at Turner's restaurant chain, Ted's Montana Grill, and it also has been catching on at regional brew pubs, small local restaurants and even large chains. Ruby Tuesday's menu features a bison burger and Rock Bottom Brewery restaurants serve buffalo fajitas.

"What's encouraging to me as I travel around, is it's less and less of a surprise to find bison on menus in restaurants," Carter said.

Shoppers in Denver can find bison meat in their conventional supermarkets, but others across the country may need to explore their higher-end grocers or natural food markets to find raw meat to cook. Any dish that calls for beef can be adapted to bison, but Carter suggests medium-rare to rare.

Carter said getting people to try bison is important, as many consumers who try a new animal for the first time often worry it'll taste tough and gamey.

"We've been working very hard to put that first taste of bison in people's mouths so that they'll realize that it's really a tasty product," he said. "And once we're doing that, they're coming back for more."

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