Volume 11, Number 2, 2002

Alumni Profile

Where buffalo roam

Each day, Keith Johnson, AG '92, lives out the wish uttered in the first lines of this famous American folk ballad. He does, indeed, have a home where buffalo--more than two dozen of them, in fact--roam.

Johnson, knows plenty about the big critters, knowledge accumulated through his studies at UD, his friendship with former University of Delaware Prof. Bill Williams and his work as a bison farmer in Georgetown, Del. Actually, as Johnson points, out, their official name is "bison." Buffalo, it seems, is a nickname that evolved over time and is more familiar to most people.

Johnson is an eighth generation farmer on the 1,500-acre family farm, where he lives and works with his father, Harold, mother, Jeannie, and brother, Shawn. The Johnson farm is a busy place; the family grows corn, wheat and soybean. It also raises 30,000 chickens--18,000 a year as "broilers"--and has about 25 bison at any given time. The female bison (cows) are kept as breeders, as are a handful of males. Each year, about a dozen bulls are slaughtered for food.

Johnson says he has a healthy respect for the massive animals--they're powerful enough to knock down a fence (hence, the electrified one that surrounds the 20 acres of land where the bison are kept), and they can outrun most horses, hoofing it at up to 35 miles per hour. So, they're hardly thought of as family pets. None have names, and Johnson says he's not "personally attached" to any of them.

"Still, I can't bring myself to kill any of them either," he notes. "I leave that up to the butcher."

The meat from Johnson's bison is sold to area restaurants (where it's turned into "Buffalo Burgers") and also is available at the Johnson farm for about $4.60 a pound--slightly more than the cost of hamburger.

"It's better for you than regular beef," Johnson explains. "It's much lower in fat and cholesterol--lower than chicken or turkey even. And it's higher in protein."

And what, exactly, does it taste like? Johnson--who eats bison meat up to three times a week--says it's actually quite similar to domesticated beef.

"It doesn't have a wild or gamy taste," he says. "Some people say it's a little sweeter than regular beef."

North America's largest native land mammals, bison live on a diet of grass--consuming up to 30 pounds a day, depending on their weight. And they're a good size, too, Johnson says. Males can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh as much as a ton-and-a-half. The females aren't anything to sneeze at either, They can weigh anywhere from 800 to 1,300 pounds. And, when a bison bull "speaks," people listen--a bellowing bull can be heard as far as a mile away.

In the 1800s, more than 60 million bison roamed the American plains, but by the end of the century, hunters had all but eliminated them. In fact, by 1900, less than 1,000 bison were left in the United States. But in the past 50 years, bison have made a tremendous comeback from the verge of extinction. Now, experts believe, there are as many as 500,000 in America.

"The last large herd in the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware region appeared along the west bank of the Susquehanna River in 1773," Prof. Williams says. Another herd, said to number more than 10,000 bison, was once seen near Harrisburg in the 1800s.

Johnson says that while people don't associate bison with the Eastern part of the U.S., he's not the only farmer in Delaware to raise them.

"I got my first bison from someone else in the state," he says. "We'd always had some cows around here, and we wanted to try something new." The majority of the bison brought to the Johnson farm have been imported from the western U.S. and Canada.

Bison, while interesting to observe, are not easy animals to work with--primarily because they're not farm animals at all. "They are untamed and wild and can turn on you in a minute," Johnson says, adding that he's had two close calls with bulls during feeding times. "The ones we have aren't as wild as the ones out on the plains, but they're still unpredictable."

Johnson says that every encounter with the bison, including running bulls down an alley and into a trailer to be transported to the butcher, is "always an adventure."

How about the females? Are they less aggressive?

"They're smaller and their horns are more dainty, but I don't trust them either," he says, adding that they can be very aggressive if approached when they have a calf by their side. Known for their speed and agility, these animals can suddenly break into a sprint, Johnson says, and "run until they're completely tired--'til their tongues are hanging out of their mouths.

"We're not really sure what sets them off, but when they run, they really charge," he says. And, like bison in the wild, Johnson's bison live outdoors year-round.

"The bulls who are a year-and-a-half to 2 years old are like 18-year-old teenagers--all piss and vinegar and wanting to show you who's the boss," Johnson says. "When they get older, they know they're the boss and they don't have to prove it to you."

Occasionally, Johnson says, he'll be questioned about his family's decision to kill some of the bison each year. "People will say, 'Don't you feel bad about it?' Then, I remind them that if you want to really preserve something, you have to find a use for it."

Williams says that Johnson is carrying on a long tradition of bison farming in the region. "They did live in this part of the world for a long, long time, and they obviously can still thrive here," he says.

While bison farming is a "sideline thing" at the Johnson farm, Johnson says he doesn't foresee that part of the business waning any time soon.

"There's a demand for buffalo meat," he says. "It's more popular than you'd think.

"They're a steady part of our business," Johnson says, "and one of the more interesting parts."

--Nicole Pensiero