Warily, the buffalo come slowly to the fence. Grunting softly, curious to see if there is any food involved in this encounter, the younger cows approach first while the bulls act as sentries. The fence is electrified — 8,000 volts — so they keep their distance, their tongues exploring the grass, the huge heads and eyes keeping a careful watch.
Yet as majestic as these symbols of wild America are, this is no zoo. It’s a meat farm. American buffalo meat — lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than other red meats, but higher in protein and nutrients — has gained a following among the health-conscious.
At 2,000 pounds, the biggest bull is more than a handful. Yet Donald and Kay Kenerson of Solon manage the herd of 19 cows and bulls by themselves. What you really need, Donald Kenerson says, are high fences, plenty of grasses and patience.
Kenerson Farm’s herd is just the right size, Kenerson said recently. “Our fields couldn’t take any more,” he said.
But keeping the herd at 20 or less has also put the Kenersons in a tight spot.
“We are taking two animals every two months to slaughter,” Kenerson said. The buffalo meat has become so popular, he said, the demand is far exceeding his supply.
“We could sell everything we can grow,” Kenerson said. “It’s a healthy meat and people are becoming more and more concerned with their health.”
Buffalo farming is an unlikely calling for the couple, who came to Solon from Massachusetts in 2001. “We bought this place and we had all these fields,” Kenerson said.
So the couple, who had owned only a dog and a parrot previously, bought a herd of llamas. And then they bought a herd of Highland cattle. They stocked a farm pond with rainbow trout and raised a flock of guinea hens to keep the bugs down.
And just when they thought they had settled, they saw a television show about raising buffaloes and the health benefits of the meat. They were instantly hooked.
“We started with four,” Kenerson said. “You must have at least three since they are herd animals.”
Kenerson’s wife, however, keeps her distance. “I’m afraid of them,” Kay said. “You just have to be brave and I’m not. Donald, well, he just has a special way with them.”
That’s not to say it’s all a walk in the buffalo park. Donald has put in months of backbreaking work building fences for the 25 acres of grazing and creating a web of fenced-in “rooms” which allow the animals to be treated by veterinarians or loaded onto trailers.
He has been pinned against fences, chased over fences, butted and shoved and stomped on. And he still loves every minute.
“Hello, Nickel,” he calls to one of the buffalo cows. “Hello, Penny,” he says to her calf.
“But these are not pets,” he cautions. “The goal was originally to keep the overgrowth on the fields down. Now it’s to break even, breed healthy calves and sell quality meat.” It’s not a big meat market, Kenerson says, but rather a small, niche market that will allow the buffalo to roam on the farm in Solon but still pay for themselves.
“When we started, just seven years ago, there were only about 3,000 American buffalo in the country,” Kay Kenerson said. “Now the herds are back to where people can harvest.”
The couple said other buffalo farmers and the staff at a national park out West have provided invaluable advice for raising and handling the beasts, while the Somerset County Cooperative Extension provides pasture advice.
Kenerson said the marketing is the easiest part. Bison meat is now being served in some of the nation’s finest restaurants.
Kenerson said many of his customers are looking for a locally grown and responsibly raised meat, and they are often quite savvy about buffalo meat’s health benefits.
According to the National Bison Association, “Bison are a classic example of an American heritage that was nearly lost but is now being renewed through a vigorous campaign of conservation and re-education.” Because it takes 28 months before a buffalo calf is ready for market, bison will never be just another meat commodity.
The association’s research shows that bison is highly nutritious. Compared to choice beef, buffalo has six times less fat, slightly more protein, half the calories, four points less cholesterol, almost twice the iron and more vitamin B-12.
The association estimates there are more than 450,000 bison today in North America, maintained both on private ranches and in public herds.
Maine supports about 13 buffalo farms and most sell the meat at farmers markets and to restaurants and cooperatives. The Kenersons sell at the Skowhegan and Waterville year-round farmers markets, and from their Solon farm. Customers can choose from a wide variety of cuts, from $15.70 a pound for T-bones to $7.50 for hot buffalo sausage.
The Kenerson Farm can be reached at 643-2008 or at email@example.com.