Perham, Minn. — A small group of Minnesota bison farmers who sell directly to consumers have locked in their access to a steady supply of bison at wholesale prices.

The members of Minnesota Bison Marketing, a new-generation cooperative, share the costs of processing, storage and inventory. It’s a simple arrangement: they buy and butcher members’ bison, then sell products back to members, who retail the meat to the public.

‘Small guys’ with big animals

Frank and Irene Hendricks operate Pine Grove Bison in Perham, raising breeding stock and meat on 160 acres of rolling hayfields and pasture. The Hendrickses slaughter about five finished bulls a year, not enough to supply their customers — summer residents, tourists and specialty gift shops. “By July we usually run out of hamburger,” Frank Hendricks says. “So we have to buy quite a lot, too.”

Recently, Pine Grove Bison and other small Minnesota bison businesses lost their main supplier, the North American Bison Cooperative. The New Rockford, N.D. co-op, which processes about 60 percent of the U. S. bison crop, began requiring 500-pound minimum orders. “That’s too much for most small meat purveyors,” Hendricks says.

To serve themselves, nine small-scale bison farmers kicked in $500 each last spring to organize the Minnesota Bison Marketing Cooperative. They worked with the Department of Agriculture to develop a distinctive logo and label. AURI assisted with direct marketing materials, and the Small Business Development Center in Brainerd helped the co-op create a business plan.

Bison must be the best

To ensure uniform quality, the co-op hired a meat consultant to oversee slaughtering and butchering. The bison is processed and packaged in clear freezer pacs at a federally inspected plant in Miltona, Minn. Minnesota Bison Marketing offers steaks, roasts, ribs and hamburger, plus specialty meats such as bison brats, wieners, sausage and jerky.

Top quality is essential for a new consumer product like bison, says Willmar producer John Arndt, secretary of the new cooperative. “If (consumers) get a bad piece of beef, (they) just go out and buy some more. But if people try buffalo for the first time and it’s bad, we don’t get a second chance.”

The co-op processes “all young, choice, prime animals, so all the meat that hits the market is top-of-the-line,” Arndt adds.

A supply at wholesale

In its first six months of operation, the cooperative slaughtered 24 animals and posted sales of $20,000. Eventually, the co-op hopes to slaughter about 16 bison a month.

While the cooperative needs enough margin to cover the costs of livestock, processing, storage and promotion, it doesn’t aim to make a profit, says Hendricks, president. “We resell to our members at cost.”

All the co-op’s products appear under the Minnesota Bison Marketing logo. But members serve their own accounts and set their own prices for bison products, which usually retail for about twice the price of beef. “Members buy back only what they are able to sell, so they don’t have money tied up in cuts of meat they can’t sell,” Hendricks says.

At the same time, co-op members can count on a ready supply of the meat customers want. For example, the co-op sold 450 pounds of bison roasts to a member who was supplying a special event. “Very few producers would have that quantity of roasts available themselves,” Hendricks says.

Nurturing a new industry

The bison industry is still small. The Minnesota Buffalo Association estimates there are about 8,000 head of bison on state farms. But numbers are growing steadily, says Hendricks, a retired cattleman and equipment operator who started raising bison as a hobby.

Minnesota Bison Marketing is a smart way to nurture this new livestock industry, says Michael Sparby, manager of AURI’s Morris office.

“By cooperating on slaughter and processing, producers are no longer restricted to marketing single animals at a time. Instead of five or ten different labels, they have one.” Most important, Sparby says, farmers maintain control of the processing.

John Arndt agrees: “With this new industry, we are hoping to move up the food chain and eliminate the middlemen, where most of the profits go.”