Breaking Out of the Box
Producer Approaches to Marketing Bison Meat

Paul Thomas*, Shannon Berndt*, Dennis Swanson, Faye and Verdell Olson,
 Troy and Mary Olson, and Doug Earl
North Dakota Buffalo Association

 

M

arketing is not a one-time event, but a process which has a beginning, middle and an end. You can improve it, perfect it, change it, even pause it, but you can never really stop it. In marketing, it takes a lot of patience to wait to see if something is working and it can take a lot of courage to realize when something isn’t working. Current bison marketing strategies require us to move away from what is considered the “traditional” way of doing things—it is no longer enough to just “think outside of the box”, to be a success we need to break out of the box. Successful marketing is constantly and consistently looking for new and innovative ways to promote your products. This article presents a few ideas of how others are “breaking out of the box.”

Adopt a Freezer Program

Marketing bison meat products can be very challenging.  Some of the main obstacles a producer faces are first deciding where to focus sales efforts.  Many producers have been successful in a wide variety of sales, including sales from ranch freezers, restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, and even concession sales. 

The "Adopt a Freezer" (AaF) program, designed by the North Dakota Buffalo Association, is designed for retail sales in grocery stores. Preliminary research concluded that bison meat sales in grocery stores moved very low volume.  It was also discovered that buffalo meat was almost invisible in a super market when placed among the thousands of other retail products. Another problem was the obvious price difference when buffalo meat was offered next to lower cost, competitive products. The need was evident to make bison meat more visible and set it apart from competing products in an effort to promote this unique food as a premium product.  

An upright, glass-door merchandizing freezer is placed in a grocery store by the producer at no cost to the store in exchange for floor space.  The freezers are generally 12-24 cubic feet in size and have glass doors and lighted interiors.  The products used in the AaF program are all vacuum sealed, frozen products which are ready to scan, making for efficient sales for the stores.

While the original AaF program used all North American Bison Cooperative products, it is possible for an individual who wishes to private label their own bison products to use this idea to market their meat.

The AaF concept requires the producer to make regular deliveries to the stores and be responsible for all invoicing and billing.  This program has proven to increase sales in some stores five-fold.  The disadvantage, of course, is the cost of the freezers, but in many cases the increase in sales will recoup the freezers cost in a short time.—Dennis Swanson, North Dakota Buffalo Association President, James River Bison Ranch, 7350 11th St. NE, New Rockford, ND  58356, 701-674-3296, dennis@daktel.com

Education, Promotion, Marketing of Meat is a Top Priority of Sand Hill River Bison Ranch

Faye and Verdell Olson and Troy and Mary Olson began raising bison when their first calves were bought in 1995.  Seeing a need to find a profitable addition to grain farming that wouldn’t be so dependent on weather or the government payments, we researched several enterprises, including bison.   We visited with lots of bison ranchers, for 2-3 years before committing to it. The bison seemed to fit, as they require relatively little care and are an important part of American history.  Sand Hill River Bison Ranch now has two locations near Fertile, MN.

The operation started with 21 heifer calves and two bulls.  The second year we added 15 feeder bulls, along with a few more heifers and the third year had 25 feeder bulls.   We now have 100 plus animals in the two locations.

After researching slaughter facilities, we joined the North American Bison Cooperative in New Rockford, ND.   We have not found a cleaner facility or one that has a more consistent quality of meat.  This plant is USDA and EU inspected.  EU certification has very rigid standards which allow meat to be marketed from North Dakota to Europe.  We are also members of the National Bison Association, Minnesota Buffalo Association, and the North Dakota Buffalo Association. We also participate in the Adopt-a-Freezer program.

We are optimistic that we will be successful if we are aggressive in marketing bison meat.   Live animal market prices are based on meat value.  We saw early on the need to promote the meat, as not much emphasis was put on this.  So our family bison business decided to go one step further with a catering/concession business.

FaVer’s Catering is a division of Sand Hill River Bison, and is owned and operated by Faye and Verdell Olson.  We started catering with just a grill and some roaster ovens in 1997.  We designed and built a new kitchen on wheels in the spring of 1999 from a blank 8X20 ft. cargo trailer.  We travel with our mobile food unit to fairs and other special events.  We are licensed, fully insured (we carry liability insurance for the products we serve, as required by most of the events we are invited to) and are set up to cater any special occasion or event.   We serve bison in many forms.  We have frozen meat available at all our events for people to take home and also have meat for sale at our ranch.

Faye and I have taken the food safety certification classes and Faye has obtained her food manager certification in safe food handling.  Operators of mobile food units are not required to take this course, however, for proper food safety compliance, there is a lot to know about safe food handling.  Our catering goals include attention to food safety, cleanliness, happy satisfied customers, as well as wanting to educate the public about how delicious and nutritious bison meat is.  Serving a quality product will encourage the general public to consume it and come back for more.

All of the meat products that we use are Buffalo Nickel Brand, from the North American Bison Cooperative.  We know that factors like food safety, quality assurance, and an adequate supply of meat can be supplied by the NABC.   We also receive sales and marketing support through them if need be.

Our goals are:

  • To have a business where we can travel and have fun while promoting the industry we have so much invested in.
  • To show people how naturally flavorful and tender bison meat is when cooked properly and promote the healthful benefits of bison.
  • To achieve consistent, repetitive, and profitable meat sales.

The market for bison meat is still in its infancy.  We want to reach a high percentage of the consuming public at the events where we cater and provide a positive image of bison meat and the bison industry. –Sand Hill River Bison, RR 2 Box 75 A, Fertile, MN 56540, Verdell & Faye Olson 218-945-6015, Troy & Mary Olson 218-945-3018, www.favers.com

Siouxland Buffalo

Siouxland Buffalo, located west of Grand Forks, ND, is thriving in the challenging, yet rewarding business of selling buffalo products.

The plant, owned by Doug Earl and his family, slaughters and processes the Earls’ own home-raised buffalo, selling mostly halves and parts of the buffalo carcass. Steaks, roasts, and burgers are sold to approximately six outlets throughout the region. The farm also has a gift shop, which sells buffalo meat products and buffalo crafts, including buffalo hides, skulls, leather products and artwork.

Siouxland Buffalo, a fourth-generation family farm, started raising buffalo in 1972. Siouxland Buffalo now has 400 head of buffalo on the farm. A slaughter plant was built in 1982 and we have been selling buffalo since.

When a new inspection law was passed by the North Dakota Department of Health in 1997 requiring all meat products, including game meat, sold in the state to be inspected, Siouxland Buffalo closed. It became an officially inspected state slaughter and processing plant and reopened on March 1, 2001. The plant slaughtered and processed around 80 head of buffalo under inspection in its first year.

“Since we have been under the state inspection program, things have gone more smoothly than expected as far as the people that we work with and the paperwork that being a state plant entails,” explains Doug.

One way Siouxland Buffalo is gaining more exposure is by utilizing the newly refurbished Town Square in Grand Forks. The Earls set up a stand and sell a variety of their products every Saturday during the summer months. This attracts many different arts and craft displayers. An estimated 80,000 people visited Town Square last year, and that helped gain exposure for Siouxland Buffalo.

Doug said, “The best advertising for the business has been word of mouth by the many satisfied customers who enjoy our products.”

In the future, Doug would like to partner with Hickory Hut, a state processing plant in Langdon, to market more buffalo and sausage products at their retail outlets.  The Hickory Hut would take buffalo slaughtered under inspection at Siouxland Buffalo and make different sausage products, processed under inspection, that Doug could market at the stores which currently sell his buffalo steaks and roasts.

Siouxland Buffalo is a great family farm success story. “Having our own family run the meat and gift shop is beneficial to our entire family operation because it helps us retain a larger share of the market on all of the products we produce,” concluded Doug. –reprinted from the Meat Messenger, published by the ND State Meat Inspection Program/ND Dept. of Agriculture.

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*Administrators of the North Dakota Buffalo Association
4007 State Street
Bismarck, ND  58503
701-530-1997

 

NDSU Vice President,
Dean and Director for Agricultural Affairs
NDSU Extension Service ND Agricultural
Experiment Station
NDSU College of Agriculture NDSU College of Human Development and Education