Buffalo Farm in White Earth, MN

10 10 2008

by Kristen Ramirez with edits by Emily Larson

After a sampling a wonderful wild rice and buffalo soup at Minwanjige Café on the White Earth Indian Reservation, we set out to find the second ingredient in the soup: the buffalo. We sought out the buffalo farmer, Steve Roberts. Steve started raising buffalo twelve years ago. He wanted to utilize more of his land but not degrade it with unsanitaryBuffalo - by Kristen Ramirez cattle. Cattle degrade the wetlands by defecating in the water, but buffalo’s instincts make them fearful of predators near the water. Thus, buffalo go for a drink but that is all.

One problem Steve faces is the misconception that buffalo is more expensive than beef, making it more difficult to sell. Small farms like Steve’s cannot match the low prices of huge farms. The very great difference stems from the quality of care Steve’s buffalo receive. “Look at the quality!” Steve said when explaining his perspective on pricing. “And it’s costing less than if you went into Wal-Mart, and God only knows where that stuff comes from. I don’t even know if God knows where that stuff comes from.” After all, the health of the buffalo translates to the health of the consumer. Steve doesn’t use vaccines and he doesn’t take away the young from the mothers like most other farms do. New baby buffalo take care of themselves once they are dry and walking. Other farmers stick and prod the buffalo, but not Steve. He opens a gate and lets them through. The only thing Steve manipulates is which pasture the buffalo graze in, which he must do to produce grass-fed meat. Grass-fed animals must have plenty Steve Roberts - by Kristen Ramirezof land, so this year Steve designated 80 acres for the buffalo in order to save on food costs. Normally, Steve would have started feeding them hay, but this way he has saved two months worth of feed. He will not need to start feeding hay to the buffalo until there are four feet of snow, thus he only needs hay for four months instead of seven. Buffalo eat snow, whereas cattle will not, so he does not worry about hydration. He doesn’t see any reason to manipulate the buffalo more than this.

Steve explained the pricing breakdown. Buffalo sells for $2.20 per pound hot hanging weight, which means meat and bones, but no innards, head, hide or legs. Finished weight is about $4.16 per pound, which means the butcher takes out particular parts. An online buffalo farmer sells ground buffalo $6.50 per pound, but the charges $6 to $10 per pound for shipping, which in total costs more than Steve’s buffalo. Crops generate more income than grass-fed animals, and it takes three and a half years to get returns from the first herd of buffalo. The economic climate makes small farms more difficult to start and maintain, and as a result, the number of family farms decreases as the number of corporate farms increases.

Buffalo Farm Landscape - Kristen RamirezBuffalo farming is difficult to finance because you cannot “run them up to the sales barn,” said Steve. There are only two auctions for buffalo all year. Many people leave the business because they can’t afford to accept less money for their buffalo each year. He wishes he could sell the calves every year, but they might be taken to feedlots, and then he wouldn’t be promoting grass-fed meat. “When animals are happy with their situation and they don’t feel stressed out, they are going to grow better,” he said. Most buffalo farmers use feedlots, which he believes defeats the purpose of raising buffalo. “You might as well eat a cow then,” he exclaimed. On feedlots, cows eat high volume, high protein food, but don’t get exercise, so they just get fat. Steve thinks it is partially because people want uniformity in their food and are misinformed about the consequences of the process. Education about local food, he believes, is easy for people in cities, but is more difficult in rural areas because of the cost of transportation.

Steve is proud of how he raises buffalo; it is healthier and more sustainable than cattle. “I’m not saying we’re the best thing since sliced bread,” Steve explained. “But you don’t have to be mean to them. They’re not stupid animals. They’re actually pretty smart.” His buffalo are custom ordered, so the farm never wastes meat. Roberts said his goal is to have 10 to 20 families buying half the animals.

It’s easy to forget the consequences of what we eat when we are so caught up in everything else. But it’s not easy to ignore these consequences when we’re close enough to the source to get cow pie on our shoes. We must learn about where our food comes from and seek out sustainable food before there is nothing left to be sought. It is time to start measuring the impact of our everyday lives on the planet, and one good place to start is the origin of our food.

To view these photos and more, please see the Buffalo Farm slideshow.

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One response

28 09 2009
Mike Stainbrook

Hello- looking to inquire about 1/2 a buffalo. looking for information on processing charge, availability, and what meat locker the animal is brought to.
thanks for your time!

MIKE

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