We piled into a red Gator prone to overheating and drove into the bison herd. A family of sand-colored grouse popped up from the green-stemmed, red-tipped prairie grasses to find a resting place away from the rumbling engine. I had only seen a living bison one other time in my life, and it was much farther away than the hulking, giants before me.
The animals clearly saw Dave Hutchinson, my driver and the owner of Perfect 10 Bison and Hutchinson Organic Ranch, as a member of the herd, a leader even. The deep-brown-and-umber colored beasts surrounded us; their heads were the size of half my body, but their presence was not intimidating, rather it was calming and serene. Some wallowed in bogs created from the region’s high water table, others tended to calves, but most of them just stood there and stared at us or quietly munched on little bluestem and Indian prairie grasses. Perhaps they have been blessed with an evolutionary peace of mind that comes from being the largest terrestrial animal on the North American prairie, or maybe it was the majesty of the entire 5,000-acre organic ranch that I sensed.
I have been in sleepy Nebraska towns that were smaller than this group of animals, smaller even than one bison in particular who seemed skeptical of my presence. At 25, he is the eldest of the herd and has been with Dave on this ranch almost since its inception. The herd is closed, meaning he doesn’t bring in bison from outside breeders or other sources. All of his calves were bred, born and will die on this prairie.
“You want to keep the great-great-grandmothers and the great-great-grandfathers around because they teach the calves how to be buffalo,” explained Dave who knelt down in the pasture to pose for a photo and then went on to discuss how feedlot buffalo don’t know how to behave when given the chance to roam.
Dave didn’t grow up ranching in these hills; rather he was raised just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father worked as a state soil conservationist in the 1960s. He knew, however, that he always wanted to live and work in a place like this.
“We are caretakers of the bison, which means we manage the grass, the meadows, this prairie,” said Dave.
We stood among them, listened to them tear away and chew at the grasses, doing their part to keep the biodiversity of the Plains in balance. When it’s time to harvest the animals, Dave says those who are ready to die usually step forward, he calls to them, and they come.
“There was time when I thought, well, what if the wrong one steps forward, but you know what, it’s always the right one,” said Dave.
He started the Gator once again, and we began our multi-hour drive to the highest point on his land, leaving the bison to graze. As we climbed in elevation, small red orbs began to appear at the base of the grasses. He stopped, pulled out his knife and sliced the stem, then offered me a handful of rose hips.
“These are great for you, good in tea,” said Dave, whose mother died of cancer at the age of 50.
The experience influenced his passion for organic food and grass-fed pastured meats. He doesn’t shirk at expressing his disgust in feedlots, corn syrup or immunizations, preferring instead to treat ailments with homeopathic remedies. He even offered me a few mouth sprays of a concoction designed to treat prairie allergies.
It was obvious he wanted me to understand the value of these grasses. He stopped again, jumped out and handed me a few blades of prairie sandreed, “This,” he said, holding the wheat-colored stalk up against the fading light, “helps to hold the hills in place.” We continued on as the sun began to burn out and stopped for more grasses along the way, plucking strands of switchgrass, sand lovegrass, sage and sideoats grama. We reached a hill he called Pikes Peak. Natural lakes rested on either side of us, and I felt a true sense of how gentle and peaceful these grasslands are. We lingered and watched the sun dip below a crested hill in the distance then turned around and made our journey back to the home he shares with his wife, Sue.
When the final goodbyes were spoken, I walked down the wooden stairs of his porch to my car. My arms were wrapped around a prairie grass bouquet. It seemed like a fitting gift after spending nearly six hours exploring an organic bison ranch tucked into the gently rolling Sandhills of Nebraska with a man who cares more about the land than most I’ve ever met.
To order bison simply send Dave an e-mail at email@example.com or give him a call at 402.760.1323
Summer Miller is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Every Day with Rachel Ray, Saveur, The Reader and more websites than room to note. She lives with her husband and two children in Elkhorn, Nebraska, where she spends most of her timethinking and writing about food. As of late, she’s been traveling the forgotten Plains of Iowa and Nebraska writing her first book, which is, of course, all about food and those who love it.