NY brothers build business around bison

10/6/2012 4:30 PM
By Associated Press

ULYSSES, N.Y. (AP) — Maybe it was curiosity, or a love of farm work, or maybe it was their Native American blood that drove Evan Reynolds, 19, and his 16-year-old brother Alex to build a business around their father's four bison.

Whatever the impetus, those four bison have turned into a sizable herd of more than 50, and the teenage siblings are working to balance school with the business of selling bison meat and hides.

It appears the pair are succeeding, though caring for a herd of wild animals is only part of the equation. There also is maintaining fences, buildings and machinery.

When Evan gets home from TST BOCES, where he is studying heavy equipment, he spends an hour feeding the herd. He drives the John Deere tractor over to pick up the feed, and then begins to untie and pour 500 pounds of grain into the bucket of the tractor. This, with two large hay bales, is one day's food for the herd of 53 bison.

Meanwhile, Alex, an Ithaca High School junior who plays football, lacrosse and wrestles, spends many of his weekends selling bison meat at the Ithaca Farmers' Market.

Neither has a lot of spare time.

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The bison stand around the feeding wagon, calmly chewing their cud and swatting flies. They appear to have a heightened sense of awareness of everything that is going on: where the photographer is, the fact that he doesn't belong, where Evan is, and whether the gate is open or closed.

Evan and Alex deal with the bison daily, and they understand that they're dangerous animals. In 2009, their father, Greg, was gored the day after they received a new bull.

"It was no one's fault; the bull was stressed from being in the trailer," Evan said. His father was OK but did require a trip to the hospital.

"I try to stay away from them and not get friendly," Evan said. One time, he was knocked to the ground by a calf while tagging its ear. She kicked at him, and then "took me out at the knees, knocking me to the ground. They're just playing; they don't know any better."

The bison's only shelter is trees. Evan said they "tried covered wagons, covered sleds, and they just tear them apart."

Usually, there is a dominant cow that "tells everyone where to go," Evan said, "but there are so many old cows that there's not really one dominant cow."

The oldest buffalo is a 14-year-old bull. He is one of the original 17 bison purchased in 2007 when the herd was started. He's an enormous, formidable animal with a huge, dark head and a look in his eye that makes one uncomfortable, even on the other side of the fence.

Evan said they don't name the buffalo anymore, "just in case we have to put one of them down." But that doesn't mean he isn't without favorites.

Speaking about the old bull, Evan said, "He'll never leave here. He'll die on the farm."

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Evan and Alex didn't grow up as farmers. In 2008, they moved with their parents from Tampa, Fla., to the 88-acre farm in Ulysses that has been in the family for four generations.

Before moving, they spent summers in Ithaca on what was then their grandparents' farm. According to family lore, their great-great-grandfather, Dr. Warren, delivered Alex Haley, the future author of "Roots." Their great-grandfather, Jack Evans, started the Glenwood Pines Restaurant.

While still in Florida, their mother, Tammy, who is a dietitian, had bison meat shipped to them because she understood the nutritional benefits of bison over beef. Shortly after, Greg attended a business conference at a bison ranch, which planted the seed of someday starting his own herd.

In 2008, Alex and Evan moved to the farm with their parents. Their father and grandfather had 17 bison, but that fall, someone let the bison out and they ended up with only four.

"After that, it needed a bit of expansion to really be a farm," Alex said. He suggested to his brother, "Why not step up to the plate and see if this is what we want to do with the rest of our life, and really invest in farming?"

When the brothers told their father that they wanted to take over the herd, he asked them how they were going to pay for it. Evan told him, "we could start buying our own animals . do a cow-calf operation and do butcher bulls and send the butcher bulls off, and the females would get to stay."

They took a loan from Future Farmers of America and purchased 25 more bison. This was a substantial purchase, as bison calf prices can range from $500 to $2,000 each, depending on the market and breeding.

"(The brothers) do all the work," their father said. Evan takes care of the herd, and Alex sells the meat on the weekends. All of their bison meat is sold exclusively at the Farmers' Market.

They began selling frozen bison meat, and then they decided to give out samples. Once they obtained a food license, they capitalized on having a commercial grille and started selling bison burgers at the Farmers' Market.

Although they aren't certified as organic, they said their farm fields have had no pesticides or herbicides for more than a hundred years.

"We keep our meat really low-fat," Evan said. "We trim it. It's leaner than salmon, 90-98 percent lean."

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Occasionally, the brothers also sell the hides. Primitive Pursuits, Cornell Cooperative Extension's nature education program, purchased the last one and tanned it.

Evan said it's difficult to say whether they are making money on the herd.

"The cost of fuel is going up," he said. "Our feed has doubled per ton."

But they are selling out at the Farmers' Market.

Their plans don't call for a larger herd because they are limited by pasture size. The bison pasture size formula suggests one acre for every two animals. The family is working on fencing in another 20 acres, but instead of growing the herd, they plan to use that pasture to rotate the animals and let the pastures recover from grazing.

Farming is hard work, so when asked why they bother, Alex said, "I like the personality that some of them have. They're wild animals, but there's a little pet in each one. There's a certain majestic quality to them."

"I'm only like an eighth or a 16th Native American," said Evan, whose paternal great grandmother, Elaine Chase Reynolds, was half-Native American from the Seneca tribe. "I'm still proud of that little little bit. I'm a fifth-generation farmer."

Shrugging his shoulders and kicking at the dirt with his cowboy boot, he said, "It's in my blood."

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Information from: The Ithaca Journal, http://www.theithacajournal.com


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