Harford farm's home where buffalo roam Herd: American Plains buffalo are the main attraction on Gary Bloom's farm.

November 26, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

It's show time on Tatanka Farm: Fifty-five wiggly fifth-graders, each one armed with a carrot or an apple, surges forward for the moment they've been waiting for, a moment they might remember the rest of their lives.

Through the bars of the tall metal fence, a small group of American plains buffalo, the majestic stars of this miniature Wild West Show, gently reaches out to take the offerings.

The students squeal and giggle as they feed the big animals, which weigh more than 2,000 pounds apiece. Up close, they look fuzzy and almost huggable, but Tatanka Farm's owner, Gary Bloom, warns his audience, "Remember, they're beasts. They are dangerous. If they feel threatened, they will kill you."

But no one seems to feel threatened on this warm and sunny November morning as Bloom winds up a polished two-hour presentation to the three fifth-grade classes from Dublin Elementary School that are visiting his buffalo farm in northern Harford County as part of their studies for Native American month.

For seven years, Bloom has been making an unusual sort of farm income off his 26-acre spread southwest of Pylesville, primarily by offering people the chance to spend time with his buffalo.

"I use my farm as an attraction farm," he said after the yellow school bus had driven up the lane. "I'm not a slaughter farm and I'm not a breeding farm. We do company picnics, family reunions, birthday parties, association meetings, barn dances and school tours. I do a lot of school tours.

"We can do hayrides, have powwows and set up a 30-foot tepee; we can offer helicopter rides, but what the people come to see are the buffalo."

For Bloom, his Tatanka Farm, named after the Dakota Sioux word for buffalo, is part business, part hobby and part crusade.

While he may rent the farm out for $100 an hour for large company picnics, he sometimes gives students tours for free if the school cannot afford to pay -- just so more students can learn about the buffalo.

"I've gotten schools out of Baltimore City that don't have any money," he said. "I'm tickled pink to share with them what I know about the animals, and who knows, some of them may grow up to be buffalo farmers."

He has had school groups from as far away as Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The Dublin school gave him a $100 donation.

Bloom believes the best way to ensure the long-term survival of the buffalo is to bring it into the agricultural economy, a view echoed by the National Bison Association, a nonprofit promotion and education group in Denver, which notes that of the 250,000 buffalo in North America, 90 percent are on commercial farms.

The herd is growing at a rate of about 20 percent a year, according to Sam Albrecht, the group's executive director.

He attributes the growth to the increased popularity of buffalo meat, which is lower in fat than beef.

"It's the leanest of the red meats. It's the meat God intended for us to eat," Bloom said with a smile. "It's very sweet and it doesn't have a gamy taste."

"We sometimes have buffalo steaks on the menu during the weekend," said William Skouras, manager and part owner of the Delta Family Restaurant, in Pennsylvania just across the Harford County border. "They go pretty fast. We usually sell out in a day," he said of a steak that costs 40 percent more than beef.

The farm is not the primary income for Bloom, a 46-year-old retired businessman, who formerly owned Bill and Earl's Transmission Co. in Dundalk.

"I make enough to pay the taxes and feed the animals," Bloom said. "About $7,000 a year. It hasn't started to pay the mortgage yet, but it subsidizes the cost of living here in the country."

The Native Americans made use of every part of the buffalo, a tradition that Bloom follows.

He rarely slaughters any of his herd, which now numbers 10. As young bulls reach the age where they may fight with his "No. 1 bull," the leader of the herd, he first tries to find a home for it among other herds in the area. Only as a last resort does he slaughter an animal.

A large bull can bring up to $6,000 for the meat and various products from the animal, which include wallets and gloves made from the hide.

He sells the meat for from $5 a pound for frozen ground bison patties to $32 a pound for heart and tongue, which are considered delicacies.

He sells buffalo hides for $1,500 to $2,000. He sells a bull skull for $300. He gathers shed hair from the fence posts in the field to sell to weavers and he bags the dried manure to sell to local gardeners at $8 for 25 pounds.

Bloom acts as a broker, helping to put together herds for those who want to start raising buffalo. He also sells frozen bison meat packed by the North American Bison Cooperative in North Dakota.

Some of his customers for his meat are Native Americans, said Bloom, who traces part of his own ancestry to a great, great grandmother who was full-blooded Native American.

Bloom is not the only buffalo farmer in Maryland, but nobody knows for certain just how many there are in the state. The state Department of Agriculture doesn't keep track of the animals, said Ray Garibay, the department's chief statistician.

Stuart Cutler, secretary and treasurer of the Eastern Bison Association, said there are probably only eight to 10 buffalo farms in the state, with fewer than 500 animals.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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