Finding a niche with buffalo
By Jennifer M. Latzke
James and Sandy Stepp have tried various agritourism ventures over the past 17 years.
What started out as a hobby buffalo herd of six head on their Sandy Springs Farms near Hinton, Okla., grew into a herd of 160 head and a facility that could host bus tours and special events. They created Wichita Buffalo Company as a label for their buffalo meat and jerky they sold at the Oklahoma City Farmers Market on weekends and to local shops and restaurants. A local basket weaver offered to put on clinics at their facility, and now they offer basket classes for the public. They’ve even hosted film crews and have been a dinner location for the folks with Outstanding in the Field.
Some activities worked for them. Some didn’t. The lessons they’ve learned through trial and error just might help others as they decide how agritourism or marketing through the local food movement might work in their own operations.
In 1997 James was a computer consultant on assignment in North Dakota. There he saw a few small buffalo herds and learned about the animals. He knew they might do well in Oklahoma.
“They do well on the natural grasses out here, they withstand the weather and their meat is very healthy,” he said. “Plus, they are just beautiful animals.”
He and his wife, Sandy, bought their first six head and started their hobby herd. At that time they were living closer to Oklahoma City. As the herd began to grow they eventually bought the ranch south of Hinton with the idea of turning it into a destination for tourists.
“When we started in the buffalo business we had very little knowledge of raising buffalo and selling the meat,” James said. There was a lot of interest in the mid-1990s on raising buffalo, and joining groups like the National Bison Association, the Texas Bison Association and the Oklahoma Bison Association helped fill in the knowledge gaps.
As they grew the business, they found that there was a growing demand for lean buffalo meat. They began to go to local farmers markets with meat they’d had processed at a nearby packer, Market 54 in Weatherford. They also added jerky and buffalo sticks that they have processed to their standards at a locker in Kiowa, Kan.
“We take in three to seven head every two weeks,” James said. “We do our inventory and then send in cutting orders for each animal.” Typically he processes 2-year-old bulls and says they can get about 450 pounds of meat from one 1,100-pound animal.
Everyone asks about the hide, the skull and horns, James said. And that was one of those lessons they had to learn.
“You can get the hide and skull back if you want, but we discovered that it wasn’t worth our time and money,” James said. Ten years ago buffalo mounts were a novelty, and James and Sandy thought they could market those to tourists. But now they let the processing plant handle the marketing of the heads and hides.
“From 2000 to now, across the industry there has been a real demand for this meat,” James said. “It’s low fat, high in iron, and low in cholesterol.” The local food movement was also just starting to take off and the Stepps were able to jump on board with their local buffalo meat.
“The farmers market in Oklahoma City has been very good to us,” Sandy said. She added that the nearby Cherokee Trading Post has their bison burgers on the menu and sells bison steaks and bison chili as specials. They also market their burger patties and snack sticks.
“We’ve also sold our meat to ‘Big Truck Taco,’ a food truck in Oklahoma City that competed on the Food Network,” she said. The Stepps also offer a buffalo hot dog that sells quite well at a hot dog truck in Oklahoma City called “Mutts.”
“We are still finding what works and what will sell,” she said. “It evolved based on the economy and competition from other meats. Right now the biggest competition to bison is grass-fed beef.” Knowing the customer and what they want is a lesson they learned.
“At first it was a challenge to do the processing to store specifications,” James said. “People are accustomed to seeing a certain packaging. They’ll return the meat if it’s not sealed right.” The Stepps print up their own Wichita Buffalo Company labels and take them to the packer for application to vacuum bags of meat.
Just recently, the Stepps made the tough decision to stop going to the farmers market with their buffalo meat. It wasn’t for lack of demand but rather a labor issue. With just the two of them they decided they need to focus on where they can get the most bang for their buck, James said. They still plan to sell buffalo meat by the case, though, to buyers who travel to their ranch, and to restaurants and stores.
To meet their demand for buffalo meat, the Stepps started buying buffalo from other ranchers to process according to their standards.
One side benefit from going to buffalo sales is that they usually have a show component. As the Stepps got further and further into the industry they started to show their stock and have garnered several prestigious awards, including the 2012 Gold and Reserve Champion Female at the National Bison Association Show and Sale. They do sell some of their breeding stock to other buffalo breeders through private treaty, as well as at production sales put on by associations like the Kansas Buffalo Association.
When they evaluate buffalo that they consider bringing into their herd they look for a variety of bloodlines and for disposition.
“We have animals from Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Kansas and more,” James said. “Disposition is also important. I don’t want animals that charge and I don’t want to be afraid of them.” Confirmation, of course, is also key. James said that they try to preserve the buffalo-ness of their herd, because they are, after all, icons and that’s part of what makes buffalo so popular.
Originally, the Stepps were hoping to bank on that popularity of buffalo with tourists. In 2000 they built a barn on their ranch specifically designed to host busloads of tourists for western type shows and dinners. They hoped to diversify the business.
So, they staged an event with western musicians and in their barn where they can comfortably seat up to 90 people. That worked OK for a while, but they quickly found out that the random nature of hosting bus tours isn’t very conducive to scheduling labor, entertainment and the like.
“If you had a bus tour every day you could afford to have employees hired and shows ready,” James said. “But it just isn’t steady work and we couldn’t staff it like we wanted.” As an evolution of their agritourism business, they started working with a local artist who they met at the farmers market. She needed a place to teach lessons, they had a facility standing ready, and now the Stepps offer a schedule of basket-weaving classes at the ranch. This change in plan works better for their labor needs and still utilizes their facility.
“People like coming out here, it’s pretty,” Sandy said. It’s that beauty that’s brought another side gig to the Stepps—hosting the foodie venture called Outstanding in the Field.
Last October the Stepps hosted the folks from Outstanding in the Field at the ranch. The concept is simple. Connect urbanite foodies with top-notch chefs and local producers. Bring them out to the farm, and share a meal on one long table outside in a beautiful setting.
According to the website for the event, founder Jim Denevan said, “I thought a big table, carefully composd alongside the ingredients for the evening’s feast would inspire both a conversation at the table and a broader discussion about food, community and the meaning of place. A traveling feast with a central vision of farmers, chefs, cheese makers, ranchers, foragers and winemakers in delicious communion with the people they sustain.”
“Most of the visitors were from out of state,” James said. “They follow the schedule of Outstanding in the Field and come from the coasts.” About 100 people came to the farm and paused for a moment in flyover country, Sandy added.
As they continue on their agritourism and local food venture, the Stepps continue to learn as well. Their advice for those considering an agritourism business is to first consider their location.
“Location is everything,” James said. “What works 20 miles from Oklahoma City may not work 100 miles from Oklahoma City.”
And, understand that while the idea of an agritourism business may seem glamorous and idyllic, know that it is a lot of hard work, James said. It’s more than a hobby, he added.
The key is to research and try what works for you, the Stepps say. And adjust the plans and dreams as you go along to meet your customers’ needs. That’s how you’ll find your own niche in agritourism.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.