Former Connecticut Dairy Delves Into Bison

5/10/2014 7:00 AM
By Sarah L. Hamby Connecticut Correspondent

BROOKLYN, Conn. — When Brewster M. Higley asked for a “home where the buffalo roam” in his 1876 poem, “The Western Home,” he was in Kansas, far from Brooklyn, Conn., and it’s doubtful he considered the possibility that the bison would roam in New England.

When Austin Tanner, 66, and his wife, Debbi, bought Creamery Brook Farm in 1981, it was a dairy farm. That endeavor ended more than once — in 2000 and in 2006 — but Tanner bought his first bison in 1990.

“I studied them in history class,” he said. “I was just fascinated with them. I didn’t know anything about the meat. That just kind of happened.”

Creamery Brook Farm became Creamery Brook Bison, a 120-acre farm owned by Austin Tanner.

“I probably rent twice that much” land, he said.

Currently, there are more than 100 bison on the farm, with 11 new calves and the possibility of a few cows expecting. Austin Tanner has the cows separated from the rest of the herd and will blood test them to be certain.

Typically, bulls are kept for butchering. But on occasion, females are used to keep up during a meat shortage.

Locally grown meat, with no added hormones, is “kind of the thing now,” Tanner said, “whether it’s meat or vegetables.”

According to the National Bison Association, 60,000 bison were slaughtered under federal and state inspection in 2011, more than twice the processing figures from 2002.

“It’s worked out. We don’t fatten ’em up. They’re just grass fed with natural feed,” he said.

Tanner is quick to point out that the bison are not raised organically.

“There are all kinds of regs for that. A book this thick,” he said, motioning with his fingers. “We’re natural. I don’t know if they have a definition for natural.”

Many people believe bison meat is healthier, too, as it is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef, pork or even chicken.

And for those who need something other than the reassurances of a natural or healthy label, Creamery Brook Bison meat has a USDA label on it as well. The bison is processed at Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, Mass., where it is inspected by the USDA. The meat receives a triangular inspection sticker to identify that the inspection was voluntary. USDA inspection of the bison meat is not required for sales to customers at the farm.

“We have to pay for that,” Tanner said. But he’s so used to paying for it that he’s forgotten the cost of the inspection. “People just kind of like to have it inspected; for some more assurance.”

Even with the popularity of a locally grown, healthier meat option, the Tanner family works together to keep a diversified operation.

Since the farm’s humble beginnings in 1981, the Tanners’ adult daughter, Tiffany, has offered tours of the farm. It started out with just local schools and then expanded to include private tours and special events. Now, there are bison burgers on the grill every Saturday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., July through September — except the weekend before Labor Day when most local folks are preparing for the Woodstock Fair — and public wagon rides at 1:30 p.m.

“We made some money not much. We’re still putting a lot into the business,” Austin Tanner said.

One expense is advertising. Facebook is free, but Austin Tanner places regular ads in a few of the area’s newspapers and in a well-read local shopper.

“I do some of the Connecticut tourism stuff,” he said.

Visitors to the farm are likely to spend more time than they planned for. While the Tanners still have one milking cow — she’s about 14 years old and lives at Austin Tanner’s brother’s place — a few cows still remain on the farm for ambiance. In addition, there are emus, a peacock and a friendly bison named Grunt, who has a penchant for fresh, green grass.

The Tanners recently welcomed 100 young chicks and four pigs to the farm, an attempt to branch out from the bison business.

Austin Tanner was the first selectman of the town from 2009-2013, but finds he has more time to work on the farm now.

“I’m glad I’m out of politics,” he admits. “I enjoyed it. But I missed life.”

To that end, though, he said that the town of Brooklyn has been easy to work with as far as regulations go, and that the state of Connecticut “has been great.”

“I was a little worried about the store,” he said, referring to the on-site gift shop. “I was a little worried about it because we sell souvenirs. But they’re ag, so it’s ok. We have the ice cream, the store. The state’s been great. The Department of Agriculture’s been very supportive with our permits and stuff.”

Tanner’s biggest problems are with the bison themselves.

“The first problem I had was I had no way to catch them,” he said, laughing a little.

Now, a pasture not too far from the barns hosts an elaborate cattle corral system.

“Catch them, worm them and have a strong fence.” Words of advice from Tanner to any would-be bison buyer. “Make sure they’re happy.”

His biggest concern right now? Bison are very susceptible to parasites. They’ve built up a resistance to his drug of choice, so he’s trying another drug and rotating pastures to try and protect his animals.

Bison once roamed the western part of America by the millions. Tanner pointed to a map showing how the country’s railroad system along with hunting, slaughter for sport and other choices decimated the bison population.

Prior to 1492, there were approximately 60 million bison in America. In 1889, there were less than 550. In 1951, there were about 9,250 bison in the United States and 13,900 in Canada.

According to the American Bison Society: “Of a revitalized population of 500,000 bison living in North America today, most are kept on ranches and raised as livestock. Those bison that are part of conservation herds and considered to be truly wild number only 20,000.”

The National Bison Association recently wrote about the “unparalleled strength, stability and profitability” of the bison business, noting that the animals require no artificial shelter, prefer to be outside, do well on most grasses and rarely require human intervention when calving.

Learn more at http://www.bisoncentral.com.

Visit creamerybrookbison.net to plan your trip to Creamery Brook Bison.



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