The Education of ‘Empire Buffalo’

City Slicker

By Linda J. Haley

(Town of Fenner, NY – Sept. 2012) Did you know Falls Road in Fenner is Buffalo country? That’s right: buffalo, huge animals of western lore. The last time I saw a buffalo was on the back of a nickel. It clearly says Empire Buffalo Farm on my list for farm visits.

Arriving at the farm I’m treated to a spectacular valley of rolling hills, wooded lots and the constant roaring of Chittenango falls in the background.

WOW.

As I head toward the enclosure, I’m dumbstruck by a Buffalo mom nursing her adorable calf. Never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. I move closer to examine the enclosure – heavy solid ash timbers with high wire fencing and plenty of juice.

I’m joined by one of the owners, Eileen Randolph. I ask about the reinforcements. Eileen says don’t be fooled, these are wild animals. They are not domesticated like a beef herd. The only similarity between beef cows and buffalo is the terminology used, like heifers and bulls. Buffalo herds exhibit hierarchy with one difference: they do their own thinning out. If the herd feels a member is a threat to herd safety, they’ll kill it themselves to maintain the integrity of the herd.

Empire Buffalo is a whole different type of farming. Because they’re wild, organic versus conventional arguments don’t apply. There is no organic certification available for buffalo; meat is processed under the Wildlife 5A Act. To feed the herd, they use a skid steer, wrapped in metal to maintain their safety.

Their animals are mostly grass-fed with some grain finishing, per customer preference. Empire maintains a “closed herd” status to protect the animals from outside disease. They use a heavy metal chute apparatus for rare times they handle the herd such as administering vaccinations.

Currently, they have 22 buffalo at Empire, but plan to grow to 60 over the next five years. Empire Buffalo belongs to The National and Eastern Bison Associations, celebrating their one-year anniversary in February. Empire’s mission is to sell buffalo meat to the public while educating customers to its health benefits as they enjoy the view.

They’ve recently added hop plants to the farm. I predict Buffalo motif beers in the future. Buffalo burgers and beer anyone?

Joe Lazarsky, the other half of Empire Buffalo, joins our tour. I survey the immense work they’ve done while Joe discusses future expansion plans, like converting the silo into an observation deck. It’s obvious Joe and Eileen have been busting their rear-ends since the first fence post was set.

OK; you got huge wild animals requiring major fencing, fed by skid steer and cared for through a chute … Why buffalo?

They look at each other and smile. Eileen says ‘Look at them; they’re beautiful and true survivors.’

Joe says demand is way outpacing supply for buffalo meat in the U.S. Both say buffalo meat is lower in fat than chicken, and it’s a great time to build a herd. Buffalo meat is available at Wegmans and BJ’s, but Joe wants more local direct sales – that people should understand where their meat comes from.

I ask them what they did before farming. Eileen laughs, she was a communications specialist in Manhattan, and Joe was a lawyer in Virginia. They met, sparks flew, and they moved to Washington, D.C. When children arrived, they spent vacations at Joe’s grandfather’s camp in DeRuyter.

Big cities beckon, but small town roots hold strong; one day they realized Upstate New York was where they wanted to raise their family and left the city behind.

Joe then admits his lifelong fascination for buffalo. Aha! There had to be an emotional connection somewhere! Joe proceeds to fill me in on how buffalo went from 30 million strong to only 1,000 at the turn of the century, becoming “endangered.” He relates the role of the Plains Indian eradication and European hide demand as key factors.

Of 400,000 buffalo in the U.S. today, 200,000 are on protected lands, leaving only 200,000 available for meat. The 1990s introduced buffalo meat, but current renewed interest in food safety and supply makes now the time for buffalo to shine.

Did you know buffalo produce one calf per year and live into their 20s and 30s?

That they weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 lbs?

That they’re herbivores?

Enough of my rambling; call Empire Buffalo – Joe knows, and he’s ready to share his passion with you and your family. They had thousands visit on Open Farm Day. What an opportunity to see buffalo moms, calves and the rest of the huge shaggy herd moving across the beautiful backdrop of Madison County, while getting educated about buffalo.

Thanks, Joe and Eileen!

Linda J. Haley is a freelance writer specializing in rural and agricultural topics. She can be reached at linda@m3pmedia.com.

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