An Unusual Herd Embodies A Dream

COMMENT

July 11, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

For nearly 14 years, Paul Hines has had a Churchville home where the buffalo roam.

Well, not exactly roam. The main point about raising these ornery, shaggy symbols of yesteryear America is to keep them confined behind a fence, so they won't wander off to eat the neighbor's fruit or take a swipe with their substantial horns at other animals or unwary humans.

"I tried one of the electric fences they use for cattle but it didn't work, it was too weak," says Mr. Hines, who bears the scar of a buffalo who charged when he picked up an apple to treat the ungrateful beast. Then he invested in an electric fence made in New Zealand that seems to pack enough punch to contain the herd of 18 bison on his 60-acre spread.

Despite the clumsy, docile appearance of the buffalo, or more properly, the American bison, it is fast and agile: It can outrun a horse at short distances and clear a three-foot fence with a standing jump. And, notes the Churchville voice of experience, "there's no way you can avoid one if he's after you."

Numbering fewer than 1,000 head a century ago, well over 100,000 buffalo thrive today in private herds and on government preserves. A half-dozen Maryland farmers now raise a few bison, which can weigh as much as a ton when they are fully adult at nine years of age.

It's a hobby for most people who raise buffalo, having an exotic breed and helping to maintain a living part of American history.

Mr. Hines became fascinated with the plains bison as a youth growing up in Nebraska. He joined the Army and while stationed in Alaska, the herd near Fort Greely rekindled his interest in these hump-backed oxen. Leaving the military, he settled in Harford County and got his first pair of buffalo from a Virginia farm.

The demand for buffalo meat is much greater than the supply, Mr. Hines said, because it is much lower in cholesterol and fat than beef. "I've already got a waiting list for the fall," when he slaughters the 2-year-old young bulls, he added.

Although bison meat costs more than twice as much as beef, because of the limited supply and the greater cost of production, its nutrient value is favored by dieters and health-conscious people who crave red meat. The meat tastes much like beef, perhaps a bit sweeter, depending on how it is prepared.

Still, despite two decades of promoting buffalo as a healthier meat, the demand is not sufficient to encourage widespread, large-scale production. Lots of people still think of the American bison as an endangered species, or a curiosity meat rather than a staple.

Mr. Hines hopes to expand his herd when he can afford to acquire more land. The electric fencing is expensive and buffalo require more land to graze than do domestic cattle.

Protecting them from parasites is also a big job: The medicine to deworm them regularly has to be shot from a dart gun at a safe distance because of their wild reaction. Their hierarchical feeding pattern -- the biggest animals eat their fill first -- precludes the use of oral medication, Mr. Hines explained.

Bison remain a wild animal after a century of domestication. The bulls lock horns and battle like elk or moose for supremacy in the spring. The Hines' herd is mostly inbred, with no apparent genetic problems. Breeding bison with cattle to produce "beefalo" has not proven very successful, Mr. Hines noted.

The animals live on pasture and hay, ground corn feed, and occasional treats of apples. One thing immediately noticeable is that buffalo don't smell like cattle. There's virtually no manure odor in the fields. And they don't moo or bellow: Bison snort like pigs when they have something to say.

"This is not your ordinary farm, but these are really interesting animals to raise," said Mr. Hines as he showed visitors around his farm recently, pointing out the sights with a three-foot walking stick made from a buffalo bull's penis.

His was one of the family farms opened to the public for the annual Harford County farm visitation day, which aims to acquaint non-farmers with agricultural life.

Harford has about 96,000 acres in farmland today, only 40 percent of the total a century ago, and supports about 750 agricultural operations. Dairy and beef cattle, sheep and swine still account for much of the local farm production, along with the crops to feed these animals.

Harford ranks fourth in Maryland milk production, and fifth in hay; the number of beef cattle and sheep continue to grow, but more are raised by part-time farmers these days.

Smaller, specialized non-traditional farms are gaining in popularity. Beekeeping, aquaculture fisheries and hydroponic gardening are filling the consumer demands of the increasingly urban county. Plant nurseries and sod farms and cut-flower gardens are among the other specialty branches of agriculture that have taken root in Harford.

But Paul Hines is unique among county farmers, nurturing the dusty herd of bison on his mini-ranch to achieve a youthful dream, hoping that more people will soon rediscover the gustatory delectation of this all-American meat.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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