Thousands of bison roam on farms across Wisconsin, providing consumers with flavorful, healthy meat, which fans describe as slightly sweet and deliciously tender.
One such farm, NorthStar Bison, offers grass-fed bison out of Rice Lake. Lee and Mary Graese started their bison adventure in 1994, growing it into the family operation it is today with their then-young children, Renee, Sean, Marielle and Lexi.
Both husband and wife grew up on farms and had no interest in returning to their agricultural roots. Instead, they pursued health-focused careers in dietetics and exercise.
However, Lee Graese eventually felt a calling to own a couple of bison. It was then that the two bought their first bison pair named Billy and Sarah.
“Twenty years later, NorthStar Bison has grown to consist of a few thousand acres, a processing plant, approximately 2,000 head of bison and more,” says son Sean Graese, who helps with the farm. He lives with his wife, Sami, only a few miles down the road.
“We also have an online store that markets our grass-finished bison meat, along with locally grown, grass-fed beef, lamb and goat, as well as pastured chicken, turkey, pork, rabbit and elk,” he adds. “A hobby out of control, as Dad would call it.”
According to the Wisconsin Bison Producers Association, there are nearly 100 members growing bison statewide. At least a dozen dining establishments serve bison meat as burgers, short ribs and more.
Not only is the meat rich in flavor, but there are lots of nutritional benefits to eating bison. It’s nutritionally dense, a great source of zinc, niacin, iron, vitamin B6 and selenium, and lower in saturated fat.
NorthStar bison are grass-fed, with the company motto saying it’s “good for land, good for the animals and good for people.” Grass-fed meat translates into richer flavor and is said to contain more omega-3 fatty acids as well, along with having other health and taste benefits. The farm also focuses on raising animals in a stress-free environment and “field harvests” the bison, allowing them to leisurely graze the land right up to the moment they are slaughtered.
An interesting fact, Lee Graese says, is that bison as a species have “nearly zero purposeful genetic narrowing or selection for specific traits such as loin size, tenderness or certain types of muscling.”
“If we were to remove the ear tags from our animals and pull the fence, our bison would be self- sufficient or essentially ‘wild’ for all intents and purposes,” he adds. “That is a fantastic quality that, as an industry, we are committed to maintaining. But that also creates a bug in attempting to supply restaurants with their ‘9-ounce Friday Night Steak Special,’ for example. Bison are all shapes and sizes, which is great, but difficult to manage.”
Though the bison industry is fairly small compared to other ag sectors, it’s growing, Graese notes.
“Demand has really caught on and has far surpassed supply,” he says.