Picture This: March 2014 — Better than it looks

Back to March 2014 issue

Better than it looks

Back from the brink of extinction, bison have become the picture of healthy eating.
The owner of Carolina Bison Co. was a vegetarian for 6 ½ years. Frank King thought it would be healthier, but for him it wasn’t. So he decided to go buffalo and started eating bison. “My energy just soared. I felt better. I’ve been on a high ever since. … Some people might do well with a vegetarian diet. But most people, in my 40 years of practicing, do need meat.” A fourth-generation farmer, King was raised on a 450-acre Black Angus cattle farm on the Ohio-Pennsylvania line. He took over from his father, converting the operation to organic in the early 1970s. His interest in natural food and healing led him to Life University in Marietta, Ga., where he earned chiropractic and naturopathy degrees before establishing a natural health-care clinic in Lowellville, Ohio. He advised his patients to eat bison.

Between 40 million and 60 million bison roamed the plains when Europeans arrived in North America, but settlers hunted them, mostly for their hides, to near extinction by the late 1800s.  Fewer than 1,000 were left in 1900. Preservation and restoration efforts have since boosted the population to about 200,000 on private land by 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There were 220,000 more in Canada, and about 20,000 roamed public lands in North America. Ounce for ounce, their meat has less fat and fewer calories than USDA choice or select beef or, for that matter, skinless roasted chicken, claims the Westminster, Colo.-based National Bison Association. The health kick seems to be paying off. At the start of 2013, a bull fetched on average $3.88 per pound at market, 89% higher than five years earlier.

In 1985, King bought 23 bison, investing $150,000 in stock, corrals, fencing and handling equipment. Four years later, he moved to Asheville to open King Bio Inc., which makes and sells homeopathic medicine. He moved his herd from Ohio to a 150-acre ranch in Buncombe County. Still, most of the animals that Carolina Bison processes come from other ranchers and farmers in the U.S. and Canada, who raise them according to strict, organic, grass-fed standards and sell them to the Asheville-based company, which processes about 10,000 bison a year at plants in Tennessee and Colorado. Some of that comes from his herd, which numbers about 130. He also breeds his bison with stock from partner farms.

The meat is sold through Carolina Bison’s website — a pound of ground goes for about $10; an 8-ounce filet mignon, around $17 — and at Harris Teeter, Earth Fare and other grocery stores, as well as restaurants in and around Asheville. King, whose company employs seven, expects sales to top $5 million this year. “People taste it and go, ‘Wow, I thought a big ol’ bison would be tough, but this is the best-tasting meat I’ve ever had.’” He describes it as slightly sweeter than beef but not gamey, as some expect. A roast simmered in a slow cooker with some dark beer also is delicious, the former vegetarian says.

— Leah Hughes is a Charlotte freelance writer.