Willmar, Minn. — Once the hills and plains of Minnesota swelled with herds of bison, moving over the land like vast ocean waves.

“We’ve all grown up reading about bison,” says John Arndt, a retired educator. “If there is an animal ingrained in the American consciousness, it’s the buffalo.”

Every school child knows that the great bison herds were destroyed more than a century ago: by 1889, fewer than 600 bison remained in the United States, out of millions that had once ranged the Great Plains. Over the last century, however, American farmers have slowly brought the bison back.

Arndt is one of more than 150 Minnesota farmers who raise bison commercially, preserving an historic species while creating new markets for the meat.

America’s original health food

John and Leila Arndt raise bison on 180 acres of pastureland bordering Solomon Lake in Kandiyohi County. It’s an idyllic place — the farmstead overlooking the lake, the hardwoods folding into rolling hills, the prairie knolls studded with bison.

I’ve always been fascinated by this majestic animal,” says John Arndt, 64, who grew up on a cattle farm near Clinton, Minn. and taught carpentry at Ridgewater College for 34 years. “I always had it in my mind to get involved with them someday.”

In 1986, Arndt bought five heifers from the bison herd at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne. “We started small and steadily grew. We have 220 head on the place now.” The Arndts raise bison for breeding stock and finish about 30 head a year.

Bison sustained the plains Indians for centuries. That makes it America’s original health food, Arndt says. Full of flavor, bison meat has a third less fat than skinless chicken. “It’s one of the few red meats that people with heart problems can consume. We call bison the red meat of the past, the red meat of the future — the red meat everybody is trying to duplicate.”

Touring the range

The Arndts sell about $30,000 of bison meat a year, mainly to area residents and restaurants. Leila Arndt operates an on-farm store with bison products and gifts, and also ships meat all over the country. Much of their home-delivery business has been generated by tours of their ranch, John says.

Last summer, more than 2,000 visitors took the Arndts’ “Home on the Range Tour,” a mini-bus excursion narrated by John, who is a font of bison lore. As the bus ventures into the corral, cows and calves mill about, curious but edgy. These are still wild creatures, powerful and dangerous — especially during breeding season — capable of running 40 miles an hour, jumping five-foot fences, and putting a horn into a man’s chest.

Visitors are captivated.

Says John, “The tours are really what has expanded our meat sales.”