- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) - A herd of about 2,400 American bison roams the fields at Three Suns Ranch, gobbling up grass and palmetto leaves, as well as citrus pulp brought in to supplement their diet.

On the 5,729-acre ranch east of Punta Gorda, about 60 miles north of Naples, there are no hormone injections or feed lots - staples of the American cattle industry.

Rather, 34-year-old Keith Mann and his crew of seven full-time employees are working hard to provide a product that most people wouldn’t associate with Florida: grass-fed, U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected and locally raised bison meat. The herd is comprised of transplants from the western United States and some bison born on the property.

Restaurants and Southwest Florida residents have responded quickly to Three Suns Ranch. Less than a year after starting sales, RealMeats, the affiliated company that sells the ranch’s meat, has more demand for bison than it can fill.

Mann estimated he has about a dozen commercial customers, plus people who drive from throughout Southwest Florida to the small on-ranch store.

Though it may not be on the radar for many Floridians, bison meat is increasingly popular in U.S. grocery stores and restaurant sales of bison meat grew more than 12 percent in 2013, according to a report from the National Bison Association.

Food service and retail sales reached $278.9 million, up nearly $30 million from the previous year, the association found.

The organization touts bison as a healthier alternative to beef. Its website states the meat has more iron, protein and vitamin B-12 than USDA choice beef, with less fat and fewer calories.

Sticking to a grass-fed ranching model, rather than the popular option of feeding the animals grain, gives the meat more nutritional value, Mann said.

“Grass is what they’re designed to eat,” he explained. “It’s what their bodies are designed to consume and convert. The animals are healthier and, as a result, the meat is a healthier product. You’ll have a much higher omega-3/omega-6 ratio. The omega-3s are your anti-inflammatory fats.”

The animals are slaughtered and processed in the ranch’s on-site, USDA-inspected plant, Mann said. It ensures that he and his employees have a hand in everything that happens to the bison, from the moment they are born or arrive at the ranch, to the time a customer buys the meat.

“We know everything about them,” Mann said. “At no point in this continuum, in this process, are they out of our control, is something weird happening to them, are they being mistreated, are they being treated inhumanely. That was totally out of bounds for us, which is why we went through the trouble of building the plant, which is pretty neat.”

After nearly a decade in the U.S. Army, Three Suns Ranch is Mann’s way of starting over and building a life that keeps him closer to his wife and three young boys.

“I went to Afghanistan three times,” he said, recalling his military days. “I got young kids now, so that was not a good lifestyle. We decided to get out and try something different.”

A passion for fitness and the popular, protein-heavy “paleo” diet led Mann and his wife, Caitlin Mann, 33, to investigate where the meat they consumed came from and how it got onto their plates.

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