- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - A bison’s physical makeup is a symbol.

With its large head and stout horns, it takes on challenges head-on. It does not cower in the presence of danger. It is a brooding force on four solid legs, strong and steady, radiating power and grace.

A bison is a product of a generational herd. It knows the meaning of survival and that its strength is in numbers. They are mighty, yet guarded, hidden among the great plains of North America, thundering through grasslands hundreds of years after a near extinction.

On a clear and crisp day, John Flocchini stood on a hill overlooking his 2,800 bison as they grazed on the Durham Ranch. He swiveled his head slowly as the sun reflected off his black-tinted sunglasses, looking west over the rolling hills. He’s a long way from his hometown of San Francisco.

California might be where he was born, but he was made in Wyoming, right here on the ranch.

Along with his bison, he has thrived and survived, reported the Gillette News Record (http://bit.ly/2e55GES).

The origins of the Durham Ranch

In the late 1800s, Armando Flocchini Sr. immigrated from Italy to California when he was a young boy. Growing up in the Bay Area, he started working at a local business called Durham Meat Co.

The owner at the time took a liking to Flocchini, enjoyed his work ethic and dedication to the company. Flocchini later became a partner in Durham and eventually bought out the company in the 1930s.

In the 1960s, Flocchini and his thriving business wanted to expand. With common meats like the Durham shorthorn cattle coming in and out of the San Francisco company, the head of the business had an urge to move toward a more niche meat market.

After months of searching for a plot of land, Durham Meat Co. found a 55,000-acre ranch near Wright, nestled among some of Wyoming’s best pastureland.

In 1965, Durham Meat Co. named the plot of land the Durham Ranch and it has been raising and producing bison in Campbell County since.

Armando “John” Flocchini III, the ranch’s owner and operator, recalls the day when he decided he wanted to work in the family business.

He was on a third-generation hunting trip in Canada. He was 17 and playing hooky during the first week of his senior year of high school. An early graduation present, he called it.

As they sat around a campfire, his father asked him what he was planning on doing with his life.

“I fell in love with the ranch when I was a kid,” Flocchini said. “Back in California, I would sweep the floors and package steaks as a kid. When my family took trips out to the ranch during the summer, I would stay with my grandparents for months at a time. I never wanted to leave.”

On those long summer days, John remembers working with his granddad, his mentor.

“He taught me the whys and wherefores about ranching,” he said. “I was doing everything from fencing to picking up rocks in hayfields just because I just loved it.”

After graduating with an agriculture degree from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, John, the fifth of seven Flocchini children and the oldest boy, picked up and moved to Wyoming to take over the reins at the ranch.

The bison market

In the 1970s, there were about 30,000 bison roaming on American grasslands. About the same time, television mogul and bison rookie Ted Turner bought his first plots of farmland to raise cattle.

The bison industry was small and had little growth for years. In the 1980s, a couple of things came together. Flocchini said one was Turner’s purchase and involvement in the industry and the second was a cooperative that was formed in North Dakota.

Suddenly, there was a demand for bison that wasn’t there before. But the demand was primarily for the breeding stock.

The prices of the breeding stock started to climb to ridiculous numbers.

“The prices were out of this world,” Flocchini said. “But the problem was there was no real and true foundation for the meat market. There was demand, but it wasn’t strong nationally.”

After a sudden issue with the cooperative and some poor weather, the industry all but crashed in 2000. Bison meat began to pile up in storage freezers and the whole market got backed up.

Flocchini said Durham didn’t have reason to worry as much because it operated both the production and marketing side of the process.

“Most producers do not have that advantage,” he said. “We controlled the marketing part of it, which is a nice place to be in.”

Around the country, prices dropped significantly, which was hard on a lot of people, but it also was an opportunity for a new foundation and a fresh start.

A new foundation

In 2002, Turner opened up his first Ted’s Montana Grill in Columbus, Georgia, with George McKerrow Jr., the same man who founded the LongHorn Steakhouse. About that same time, supermarket giants such as Kroger, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods started buying up bison by the truckloads.

The new foundation started to catch on.

The bison industry and the major marketers went into a full promotion mode. They got the word out on how great bison meat is, how nutritionally valuable it is compared to beef and how healthy and flavorful the taste is.

“While it was relatively low-priced in the marketplace, consumers were being re-introduced to bison and it took off,” Flocchini said. “It gained a super floor to where now, it’s a popular product coast to coast.”

In fact, Turner’s interest and success in the industry started to grow so much that Flocchini and Durham sold Turner his first 1,000 head to start one of his larger ranches in Montana.

While bison is considerably pricey today, the demand is staying strong for it.

At Whole Foods, ground bison sells for $10.99 a pound and strip steaks sell for $25.99 a pound. Sam’s Club offers bison in the form of steaks, hot dogs and even ground chuck.

“We, as an industry, are pretty confident that we’re not going to have the same issue we had in 2000,” Flocchini said. “We have the market now, which wasn’t established back then.”

Since the crash, bison demand has only gone up.

Dave Carter, director of the National Bison Association, said the carcass price for bison in 2004 was $1.60 a pound. Over the course of seven years, the price skyrocketed to $4 a pound and two months ago, the per-pound price was as high as $4.65.

With the price of bison nearly doubling from January 2009 through June this year, Carter said that the industry needs commercial-scale ranches like Durham to keep up with demand.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the increase in bison prices outpaces a 42 percent increase for similar beef grades, a 41 percent rise in pork and an 18 percent rise for chicken.

“When John says that the industry has had a good four, five years since 2011, I think he’s being too modest,” Carter said. “We’ve seen slow growth since at least 2004 and we see both the demand and the fair market price lasting a very long time.”

Carter said the average American eats about 55 pounds of beef a year. Of that beef, bison contributes a mere 0.08 pounds.

“So even if Americans tripled their bison intake, it’d only be enough for a Quarter Pounder for each person at the dinner table a year,” Carter said.

There are about 90 million cattle in the United States and only 500,000 bison. Durham Ranch contributes about 3,000 of the 60,000 bison that are processed a year.

To compare, cattle are processed at a rate of 125,000 a day.

“We’re in a growth mode,” Flocchini said. “We’re marketing somewhere close to 3,000 animals a year, close to 50 or 60 a week.”

Since Durham and its parent company have taken off, they have been partnering with other companies around the country because they can’t grow enough of their own for the demand.

“It’s a great problem to have,” Flocchini said.

Bison can bring in twice as much money as beef, and Carter said they can’t keep up with demand.

“We’re still a very small business,” Carter said. “But the demand is growing and we’re constantly looking for ranchers and producers to help us raise and harvest buffalo.”

The bison craze

Producers, innovators and cooks around the country are finding new ways to get bison on plates in a number of ways.

Chefs in Austin, Texas, are selling bison and bacon bars, Elon Musk’s brother is serving grass-fed bison tartar in Colorado and Patagonia, the global adventure outfitter, recently launched its own grass-fed buffalo jerky, made from buffalo that roam the wide-open prairie on Dan and Jill O’Brien’s Cheyenne River Ranch.

“We’re in a niche market,” Flocchini said. “Right now, these specialty products are really popular. It’s fitting really well with the CrossFit folks, the paleo diet folks and people who want that leaner, more tasty meat.”

Like all meat, bison is rich in protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. The National Bison Association promotes it as having only 2.4 grams of fat and 143 calories in 3.5 ounces cooked, compared to 8 grams of fat and 200 calories in a piece of “select” beef.

Bison meat is also promoted as a great source of omega-3 fats.

With the new school of thought emerging in the bison industry and the lure of a more holistic and organic meal, there seems to be two trains of thought: the grass-raised, grain finished or pure grass-fed.

Durham Ranch finishes its bison on grain for two reasons. One is so that when someone buys bison meat with the Durham Ranch label, the taste will be consistent. The second reason is so that Flocchini is allowed to market fresh product year-round.

“Most grass programs are seasonal,” he said. “They have to put stuff in the freezer because they’re not in the kind of condition to be a year-round producer. That’s what this grain finishing helps us do. It’s a numbers thing and a product quality thing.”

Bison grow to market size much more slowly than cattle. Putting them on a diet of grain for the last three to six months of their lives helps speed up the process. The drawback is that grain-finishing causes a rapid decline in omega-3 levels.

“We harvest our animals in the field with a mobile harvester. That way, we can pull right into the field where the animals are comfortable,” O’Brien said. “We don’t get those high cortisone or stress hormone levels in our meat like you do in industrial harvesters. We harvest humanely unlike anywhere else.”

The Durham Ranch harvests its animals in Colorado under USDA inspection.

While both philosophies have their pros and cons, Carter said it is vital for the bison industry that the two co-exist.

“It is extremely important that both the 100 percent grass-fed way and the grain-finished way thrive while the demand is high,” he said. “We don’t see it as if they are competing against each other. All we ask is that there is honesty across the board when it comes to telling our customers where the meat comes from.”

Whether consumers are eating their bison off toothpicks at a farmers market or by the pound at their local supermarket, Carter believes the two methods are important to the industry.

“We encourage consumers to simply tell us what is important to them when they buy,” he said. “The diversification of the market is key to our success.”

The future

In 1986, Durham Meat Co. bought Sierra Meat Co. in Reno, Nevada, and the company’s headquarters has been stationed there ever since.

Reno is where Chris Flocchini, the company’s president and chief operating officer, handles the top of the ever-expanding umbrella that includes wild boar caught in Texas and elk raised in New Zealand.

“Looking at it from an industry perspective, it’s been profitable for the producer and the marketer,” John Flocchini said. “It’s kind of a sweet spot. Everyone is making good money and the product is moving.”

Business is good, life is good, the beasts are happy. But is it almost time for John to pass the bison baton?

“We’ve started to look around,” he said. “We might have to dip into the nieces and nephews and see if there are any takers.”

The five daughters John and his wife, Gaylynn, share haven’t shown any early signs of interest. But why give it up, why retire now?

When reflecting on the opportunities and experiences the family business has given him, he immediately talked about a hunting trip with Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants.

One mutual friend lead to another and over a four-month period, Flocchini hunted with Bochy, sat in his office at AT&T; Park and met Giants legend Willie Mays.

“We’ve been blessed, all of us,” he said. “The community in Wright and Campbell County has been good to us and we’ve been good for them. I’m approaching 60, but I don’t plan on leaving soon. I love it.”

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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