They're still wild animals, those bison (or buffalo) behind the fence. You can give them the space, but you can't expect them to behave like cows. Aggression can replace docility in the blink of an eye.
In his plaid shirt and cowboy hat, Fritz Wildt of the Wild-T Bison Farm looks exactly like the kind of guy who would own a bison herd. You'd expect to find him out on the Great Plains, riding a horse and keeping tabs on the animals he owns. Instead, the Alexandria native lives on a profoundly domesticated farm in the Northern Neck.
Wildt and his wife, Kerry, bought their first bison in 2003 after trips out West aroused their curiosity. Unfortunately, research is skimpy when it comes to bison, as compared with cattle. "You go with the grain, but it's hard to know what the grain is because there's not a lot written," Wildt says. "You have to learn by trial and error." They've found that rotational grazing works best, and they have planted their fields with native grasses such as Eastern gamagrass and switchgrass, along with orchardgrass. They supplement with grain during the winter and dry weather when the grass is skimpy.
During the 19th century, bison were slaughtered almost to extinction. At the lowest point, the population numbered fewer than 1,000. Conservation has brought the current number up to almost 300,000. Because the herd became so small, genetic diversity is important; Wildt imports new animals from as far away as Canada to make sure to maintain that diversity.
Nutritionally, bison meat has less fat and fewer calories than a skinless chicken breast, but it provides plenty of iron and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Wildt takes his bison to Pennsylvania's Lancaster County for slaughter and a 21-day dry-aging process that tenderizes the meat and improves its flavor.
When my group arrived at the farm, most of the bison ran to the far side of the field. Given that most of the mothers had sweet little calves they nudged and herded to safety, I was disappointed I couldn't get a closer look. I'm a sucker for baby animals. I sent a photo of one that didn't run away to a friend who texted me back: "Tell him he looks cute and tasty."
Kerry Wildt had prepared fat little bison sliders for us to try in their open-plan log home, in which the walls are punctuated by a few mounted bison heads and wooden pillars carved with woodland animals separating the living room from the kitchen. It's always a little jarring to eat an animal when you can see its relatives grazing outside the window. Nonetheless, I turned my back and bit down on my slider. I'd never eaten bison before, and I braced myself for a strong, gamey flavor. I was completely wrong about that. Although like any grass-fed animal, the taste of the meat can vary depending on what that particular animal ate before slaughter, the flavor of these little burgers was practically identical to beef. They were juicy, and if anything, much more finely textured than beef. Topped with sautéed onions, they made me wish I could gluttonously ask for a few more.
Because of its low fat content, bison meat needs to be cooked slowly and at moderate to low temperatures. Rare to medium-rare makes for tender red-meat dishes that are full of flavor with a bunch of healthy nutrients packed along for the ride.
Except for transport, bison are low-maintenance. They stay out in the field all year and in all weather. Most of Fritz Wildt's attention is taken up by his fields. "I want to leave them better than I found them," he says. "Bison are a byproduct of the grass. Essentially, what I'm running is a grass farm."
Kerry's Pulled Bison BBQ
- 5 to 6 pounds of bison (two large arm-shoulder roasts)
- (For barbecue sauce)
- 2 cups of ketchup
- 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup of honey
- 1/4 cup of apple-cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons of brown mustard
- 1/4 cup of dark molasses
- 1/4 cup of barbecue sauce (Kerry uses Emeril's Kicked Up BAM! B-Q sauce)
Place the bison in a Dutch oven and add enough water to almost cover the meat. Cover it tightly and cook at 250 degrees for eight to 10 hours, checking the water level and adding more as needed, until the meat is tender and falls apart. Drain off the liquid, which can be saved for soup or stock. Pull the meat apart to your liking. Mix together barbecue sauce ingredients in a medium bowl. Place the pulled bison and sauce in a large pot and mix thoroughly. Reheat the mixture at low temperature until it is hot. Serve it on warm, toasted deli rolls. Enjoy!
Note: Locally, you can order Wild-T bison online through Fall Line Farms (flf.luluslocalfood.com), find it at the Market at St. Stephen's (6000 Grove Ave.) on Saturday mornings or, a little farther afield, at the Williamsburg Farmers Market (williamsburgfarmersmarket.com).