When it comes to raising bison, things can get a little tricky.
That’s not just because they’re big or can easily toss a 500-pound bale of hay or have horns. In fact, some bison are quite friendly – several of Brian Farmer’s buffalo in Warner at Yankee Farmer’s Market will let you pat them and scratch their thick hair. If you’re lucky, one may lick you.
The challenge arises when someone wants to process those bison, and the meat. Under New Hampshire law, almost all livestock intended for commercial sale – including domesticated bison – must be examined by a state-certified inspector before and after they enter any slaughtering facilities in the state.
And while food safety is a priority, these regulations also create difficulties for aspiring local meat producers, like bison rancher Nick Vailas.
Vailas, a health services professional from Bedford, keeps 36 bison as well as 30 elk with the help of a full-time rancher at Rivervail Farm in Errol. Vailas has owned the farm for 19 years.
But so far, he has kept to sharing any meat he produces with family and friends. With only four USDA-approved slaughterhouses in New Hampshire, plus an additional fee for inspecting bison, and the added challenge of pulling a trailer with not fully domesticated animals long distances, Vailas said processing his animals for commerce could be easier.
“It’s an impediment to people who are really passionate about farm-to-table,” Vailas said on Tuesday. Currently, he drives his animals several hours to Goffstown slaughterhouse Lemay & Sons Beef.
“We’d like to dispatch them right here,” he said.
Vailas, who doesn’t handle his bison much and generally lets them enjoy “New Hampshire’s little Yellowstone” in the North Country, would prefer to shoot the buffalo in their pasture and then bring the carcasses to a local butcher to be cut up and packaged.
That method, Vailas said, is more humane and less stressful to the bison.
“They don’t even know it’s coming,” he said. And, Vailas added, from less anxious or adrenaline-pumping buffalo comes better-tasting meat.
Vailas is also convinced meat raised this way is much healthier for people to eat.
“There’s way too much cancer going on,” he said. Additives, preservatives and other methods used in the commercial meat industry, Vailas said, could be avoided with more locally raised, almost-wild, grass-fed bison, like his.
A better way?
In his effort to improve regulations for farm-to-table bison ranchers, Vailas has rubbed elbows with policymakers as the former New Hampshire Health and Human Services commissioner. A bill was passed this winter by the New Hampshire House and Senate that essentially allows farm-raised bison to be slaughtered and sold without being inspected.
The bill accomplishes this by amending current state food licensure and inspection laws to exempt farm-raised bison in certain circumstances.
Before to the Senate voting on the bill March 17, Republican Sen. Andy Sanborn stood up and said, “I rise and say, ‘Let them eat meat!’ This is yet another extension of our ability to support New Hampshire farmers.”
Sanborn added that all the safeguards should be in place to ensure food safety, too.
While Vailas attended numerous hearings to argue for the bill’s merit, Yankee Farmer’s Market co-owner Brian Farmer isn’t so sure about the bill. He’s been the primary New Hampshire buffalo rancher – along with his wife, Keira – for more than 20 years, and actually sold Vailas some of his first bison.
From Farmer’s perspective, the bill, as written, seems to create more obstacles for bison farmers, not fewer.
“I think it’s actually harder and more restrictive,” he said. Requirements such as hiring a veterinarian to be present for the killing and processing of each animal, testing any ground meat for salmonella and E. Coli, making sure any person or retailer that buys the product keep the paperwork for at least 90 days after the purchase, and having any restaurants label the meat as from the source farm and exempt from inspections, all seem to create more hassle and cost from Farmer’s perspective.
“Who’s paying for all this stuff?” he said.
Farmer also doesn’t like the provisions that require that the bison owner or full-time employee be the only ones allowed to slaughter the animal.
“That scares me,” he said, adding that he takes care to make sure his own bison are relaxed and handled appropriately when taken to a USDA slaughterhouse. “You can’t hire a professional to come in and do it?”
Farmer said the premise behind the bill – allowing more field kills – is something he’s actually in favor of given its humane nature.
He added a simpler, cheaper way to accomplish the bill’s aims may be to eliminate the veterinarian oversight and tests, and to have an inspector look at a bison ranch visually and, if appropriate, issue a health certificate.
That certificate could then be brought to a USDA facility along with bison carcasses that were slaughtered in the field, like what Vailas wants to do.
Vailas, however, is more interested in not having to make the drive to any USDA facility with his bison, and to revitalize local farming in the farther reaches of the state.
“There are no farms left up north,” he said.
Efforts like Vailas’s and Farmer’s are becoming more commonplace across New Hampshire said Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill. While there are only a dozen bison ranches in the state, according to the most recent USDA agricultural census, there are many more local meat producers wanting to sell to the community.
“We try to grow the system to support all locally raised food,” Merrill said. She added there was only one USDA slaughterhouse in New Hampshire eight years ago compared with today’s four.
As farm-to-plate momentum picks up, however, so do food safety demands.
“We’re kind of seeing two directions from the public and lawmakers,” she said. While Merrill chose not to give her opinion on the bison bill and said her department didn’t ask for it, she did say that the legislators sponsoring it worked very diligently.
“That’s a difficult balance to maintain,” Merrill said.
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)