Quartermaster Buffalo

10 08 2009

by Emily Larson

When I first spoke to Don Solwold at Quartermaster Buffalo in Esko, Minnesota, he asked if I’d ever been introduced to a buffalo before. No, I hadn’t. I had been introduced to all kinds of things: new foods, new people, new activities, but never buffalo.

BuffaloI drove from Duluth to Esko to visit with Don on his Buffalo ranch. Once I got off the interstate, I passed Buffalo House Restaurant, and I had to wonder which came first, the ranch or the restaurant. Electric fences lined the driveway, enclosing a large pasture filled with rich green grass, as well as some the remains of some vintage cars that just ended up there. Millie, Don’s dog, barked my car into its parking spot, and then together we walked over to find Don.

Don invited me into his beautiful old farmhouse which he expanded himself. Inside, there were was a small collection of antiques that made me smile: a pump organ, spinning wheel, two wood burning stoves from two different eras, a beautiful dining room table, and the feeling of an old house well loved and respected. I greeted his wife, daughter and grandson who welcomed me warmly and were interested to hear what brought me to Esko. Over a bowl of buffalo sausage soup, complete with Don’s secret buffalo seasoning and his daughter’s homemade flatbread, I explained Community of a Plate and told them about myself, and then Don told me his history.

Don and his family lived in Montana while he was in the military, and then moved to Minnesota because of his enlistment in the Air National Guard. Now he has been raising buffalo in Minnesota for 35 years and has the longest running buffalo farm in the state. Despite his age and years of experience, his interest in buffalo farming doesn’t wane. “I’m as fascinated by buffalo now as I was then,” he told me. He raises his buffalo without hormones, steroids, or antibiotics of any kind- buffalo don’t need preventative medicine, he told me.

Buffalo meat is “America’s first health food,” according to a pamphlet Don gave me on Quartermaster Buffalo. In a way, that is exactly right. “Even without today’s statistic evidence, our ancestors recognized the meats’ superior taste and nutritional value,” the pamphlet said. Bison is healthier than beef, pork, turkey, and even skinless chicken; it has less calories, cholesterol and fat per serving. So for St. Luke’s hospital, in Duluth, Minnesota, serving buffalo in the cafeteria is a health choice as well as a local choice, although Mark Branovan, the St. Luke’s Director of Hospitality Services, didn’t realize just how healthy it was until I read him the pamphlet like an infomercial.

St. Luke’s was initially connected with Don through one of the Hospitality Managers that lives near Quartermaster. She suggested they start serving Quartermaster Buffalo in the cafeteria, and in the adventurous spirit of the Hospitality Department, it happened. In July, the cafeteria switched to serving buffalo burgers every day, instead of just once a week. Don’s biggest customer, though, is the restaurant down the road which buys 40 percent of his buffalo.

After we finished our soup, Don, his grandson and I hopped into the pickup to visit the buffalo. It was the moment I had been waiting for, and I was not disappointed. Buffalo don’t look real. If academically I hadn’t known they were animals, I’m not sure I would have believed it. They remind me of massive animatronic animals used in Disney Land rides or zoo exhibits entitled something similar to “The Dinosaurs are ALIVE!” where they make robotic versions of the prehistoric beasts. Unlike the dinosaurs, buffalo are very much alive, and are truly incredible animals.

Don’s bull, the father of most of the calves, weighs two thousand pounds and boasts the name Nitro. Nitro has a mane Nitroof dark, thick afro hair that framed his face, descending into a large goatee that King Tut would be proud of. Weaving in and out of buffalo, Don pointed out cows he’d had for many years, and whose horns displayed their proud age by the amount of rings around the base. At this point in the summer, a buffalo’s hair is matted and unattractive, but Don showed me some beautiful, thick winter pelts. He has a large pelt on his bed, and I bet he never gets chilly on cold January nights.

Back inside the house, Don showed me the tricks to cooking a perfect bison burger. I watched him sprinkle the burger with the secret seasoning as his daughter commented, “Even I don’t know what’s in it!” After he cooked the burgers, he used the remnants in the pan to make an au jus which he poured over the burgers to keep them tender; because buffalo meat is so lean, it becomes dry if you cook it just a bit too long. As Don’s pamphlet boasts, “Healthy never tasted so good!” We sat at the counter on high stools and enjoyed our burgers before going back to the buffalo.

Don SolwoldBefore I headed back to Duluth, I wanted a picture of Don with the buffalo, so this time we went inside the pasture, stepping through the non-electrified electric fence. Millie came with us, of course, as did a bucket full of feed with which to coax the buffalo over. Millie knows the farm, and she knows the buffalo. She also clearly enjoys annoying them as she barks at them and makes a scene, only to have them run at her, as she happily dodges their advances. I imagine the buffalo view her as a large, spotted, irritating fly. When I backed out my car from its spot, I had Don reassure me that Millie would get out of the way. “Oh yes,” he told me with a smile, “she learned that from the buffalo.”

To view more photos, please see the Quartermaster Buffalo slideshow.

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One response

11 11 2012
John Carlson

I enjoyed seeing the buffalo while growing up in Esko in the 70’s

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