Where the Buffalo Roam: Minnesota's Bison Industry - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Where the Buffalo Roam: Minnesota's Bison Industry

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WINONA / ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -- When people think of buffalo, they may picture the Wild West. But the woolly animal is actually in our own backyard. Farmers in southeastern Minnesota have dived into this niche industry that's driving a bison craze.

Bison, or buffalo, once roamed the entire continent. Our country's largest land animal grazed the plains for thousands of years before being on the brink of extinction.

It's bison farmers like Gail Griffin who have helped in the rebound of the animal's population. Griffin has been raising bison for nearly three decades and is the executive director of the Minnesota Buffalo Association. They raise these animals, "not only for its meat, but for the conservation of it because we are aware that bison on open prairies are very good for the habitat," said Griffin.

The bison market evolved from nostalgia for an iconic creature of our country's history and is now booming in Minnesota, but why here?

"You don't need any shelter for them, they're out 365 days a year and our weather in Minnesota is perfect," explained Griffin.

Griffin also said Minnesota is full of the demographic eating the meat. In fact, the number of people buying bison products is spiking and even rivaling demand for beef products.

"Like all agriculture, we need to expand the number of people raising it so we can meet the demand for the meat," said Griffin.

Nationally, the trend is that the demand for bison meat is far outweighing the supply. That trend can be seen in Winona, where the Griffins have 75 animals on their property. From the years of 2012 to 2013 alone, they saw a 17 percent increase in the demand for their product, and that number is only supposed to grow this year.

To check on the value of the bison industry, we consulted with experts at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

"According to the latest U.S. Census, for Minnesota that amounted to about a million-six this year that's down from about 2 million in the 2007 census," said Curt Zimmerman of the MDA.

The reason for the decline is the same reason for the meat's popularity, which is impacting beef too.

"In order to have a strong beef/cow operation or beef/cow industry in this state, you really need to have those acres of grassland and it's the same with people who want to get into the bison industry, you'd have to have areas for them to graze," said Zimmerman. "But it's the grass feed demand right now by consumers and beef and buffalo are meeting that demand."

Bison and beef tend to look and taste fairly similar. So, what exactly is the difference between the meat on your plate?

"What you'll notice significantly different with the bison is the bison meat doesn't marble," said Griffin. "So it's extremely lean, in fact, it has lower fat per ounce than skinless chicken breast." Bison also have fewer calories than both beef and chicken per ounce, and is high in protein.

Right now, these bison roam acres of pasture. But the booming industry still has experts looking toward the future.

"Do I anticipate expanding? Yes," said Griffin. "We've seen expansion just in the years since the survey was done where seven new producers have begun raising bison. Does that offset those that are retiring? That I don't have an answer for."

"It's an industry that is looking at the past and using the products of animals that were a big part of our history, and also looking to the future with a product that's leaner and is filling a niche market," said Zimmerman.

The Minnesota Buffalo Association is working up the 'Vote Bison' campaign, which strives to make the American bison the 'National Mammal of the United States' with National Bison Day to be celebrated on Nov. 1 of each year.
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