Agri Leader

Finding where the buffalo roam - for your next meal

Looking to expand your meat-focused culinary horizons?

Then give bison meat a try.

Bison meat is apparently in fashion as a healthier, lower calorie alternative to beef. A 3.5 ounce serving of beef has 189 calories compared with 103 calories for the same bison meat portion - and is much lower in fat. It's also lower in cholesterol.

In addition to its health benefits, bison meat is gaining attention because of its more natural farming approaches (many of the people who raise buffalo for meat do not use hormones with them), and because of a push from organizations like the National Bison Council and the National Buffalo Association, the latter of which gives a rosy outlook for bison meat sales in the coming years.

In fact, there are now 4,400 ranchers around the United States raising buffalo, and annual bison meat sales exceed $280 million in the United States, according to the National Buffalo Association.

There are more than 198,000 buffalo on private ranches and farms around the country, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture Survey. That's pretty amazing when you consider the animal was almost extinct in 1900, with fewer than 1,000 around.

Buffalo can also thrive just about anywhere in North America, including Florida, I learned from the industry trade groups. I had seen signs of "buffalo activity" in Central and South Florida over the past few months. A business sign in my town advertised "Buffalo meat sales," and I read a blurb in a local newspaper about Mixon Fruit Farm of Bradenton giving leftover citrus pulp and culls to Three Suns Ranch in Punta Gorda to feed its buffalo. Then a business contact also mentioned that his neighbor raised water buffalo.

Although bison meat is en vogue, you won't come by it as easy as a slab of beef. I visited the vendor with the buffalo meat sales sign, only to have the person answering the door tell me the man who once sold it was long gone. I tried to reach Three Suns Ranch several times and never got a call back, although their website says they are Florida's largest-scale bison meat producer.

I also tried to find local bison meat vendors via the websites of the National Bison Council and Eat Wild. The bison council website provided information on a Costco all the way up in Clearwater that sells it. Eat Wild gave plenty of options for local fresh meat sales, but I couldn't easily pinpoint bison in my area.

Fortunately, my business contact pulled through, and I got to speak with Sarah Overholt of Good Earthworks Farm in Sarasota.

Overholt told me that she and her husband raise a herd of 20 buffalo. The couple sells buffalo meat mainly by word of mouth, and their clients include the Hmong community in St. Petersburg and Mennonite friends.

Still, she conceded that there's a growing interest in bison meat. "More demand is there," she said.

The way they raise their herd is not certified organic, but it's as fresh, local and organic as possible, she said.

Overholt said that she uses buffalo meat in meatballs and enchiladas. "Try not to overcook it, as it can get tough," she said.

On the bison association websites that I reviewed, I found recipes for items like burgers, steaks and bison filet mignon.

Overholt and her husband sell their bison meat as "pet feed," a requirement when you are not registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of course, I'm guessing it's usually humans enjoying the end product.

When I went to take pictures of their herd, the family member who let me inside the gate warned me to stay back, as the bull can be aggressive. I maintained my distance.

So keep bison meat in mind in the new year. Bon appétit.