Sunday, October 15, 2000

Buffalo roam in New Richmond

Adventurous urban couple buys farm, puts stake in 70 head

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Emma Uible, 4, gets a close look at one of her family's buffalo from the back of an all terrain vehicle.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        NEW RICHMOND — They are the most unlikely ranchers. Cindy Cassell is a Birkenstock-wearing Ph.D., and her husband, David Uible, is a low-key entrepreneur and investor.

        Born in the city, the couple lived in a comfortable Mount Adams condo until they bolted to the country five years ago. Before then, their only experience raising animals was feeding a tabby cat named Prince Albert.

        This is why some find it hard to believe Ms. Cassell and Mr. Uible tend 70 head of buffalo on their 175-acre Vista Grand Ranch, east of Cincinnati. That's buffalo, as in horned, hump-shouldered and huge.

        “People just roll their eyes and say yeah, right,” Ms. Cassell says. “Buffalo.

        But the doubters only have to stroll behind the couple's renovated farmhouse to an electric-fenced pasture where the stoic animals stand, looking as if they rumbled in from the Great Plains.

        This is where the buffalo of New Richmond roam.

Dave Uible, wife Cindy Cassell and daughter Emma on their 175-acre ranch.
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Tristate's lone buffalo ranch

               There's no ropin' and ridin' at VG Ranch. Mr. Uible kept a horse for six weeks before tiring of it. But it's still one of only a dozen or so buffalo (technically, they are American bison, but most call them buffalo) herds in Ohio, and the lone commercial buffalo ranch in the Tristate.

        Since the beginning of the year, the former city folk — she's 38 and he's 39 — have been selling hormone-free buffalo meat — prized for its high-protein and low fat content — to retailers and restaurants.

        They never would have gotten into the buffalo business if they hadn't moved to the country, and Ms. Cassell gives her husband the credit — or the blame — for that decision.

        “I told Dave I didn't want to live in this God-forsaken place,” she says.

        Ms. Cassell, who then was working on her graduate degree in nutrition at the University of Cincinnati, loved the convenience of living in Mount Adams. But her husband yearned for more space. Although his family owned a farm in Mason, he never experienced the rural life.

Uible checks on his buffalo.
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        “They moved to Cincinnati before I was born,” he says. “I grew up hearing all those stories about life on the farm, but was never part of it.”

        Mr. Uible swears he also was influenced by the TV westernmini-series Lonesome Dove. His wife is incredulous when he credits actor Robert Duvall's performance for inspiring him to move to the country.

        They had almost given up looking for a new home, when, in 1994, they drove up the long, winding lane to the top of the hill with the magnificent view.

        “When we saw it was 175 acres, we just went whoa,” Ms. Cassell says.

        The place was a mess. The couple found a chicken roosting in the front door of the house the day they closed the sale. They loaded 27 Dumpsters with trash and spent months renovating the house before moving in. Later, they renovated a small guest house on the ranch and, instead of tearing down an old Amish-style barn, the couple turned it into a family recreation center, complete with regulation-size basketball court.

        They didn't need the barn to house animals because they weren't planning to raise livestock — at least not cows.

        From the beginning, the couple never considered buffalo ranching far-fetched. Both are adventurous. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Mr. Uible seized the opportunity to start companies to sell computer parts and publish medical journals in Russia. Ms. Cassell left a job at Children's Hospital to start a nutrition consulting company.

Independent, creative people

               “We are very independent people who like to create things,” says Ms. Cassell, who met her husband while attending Purdue University.

        Although commercial production of buffalo has been going on for more than 30 years, it is relatively rare east of the Mississippi. But it wasn't novelty that convinced the New Richmond couple to become buffalo ranchers.

        In order to qualify for a lower property tax rate under a federal program, the couple had to grow crops or raise livestock on their land. Neither wanted to give up their respective careers to plow fields or feed cattle, so they frankly admit they were looking for an agricultural endeavor that required the least time and effort.

        “Raising buffalo was the practical choice,” Mr. Uible says.

        Buffalo are on the same low-maintenance scale as goldfish. They don't require barns or other shelter, they graze on wild grasses and prefer to be let alone.

        “All we have to do is make sure they have water and hay in the winter,” Mr. Uible says.

        He grows 80 acres of hay on the ranch and hires someone to cut and bale it.

        Like any other venture, Mr. Uible researched buffalo ranching by reading and talking to other producers. He spent a day working on a ranch in Michigan before buying 12 calves in 1995. This year, he found a company in Memphis, Ind. — across the Ohio River from Louisville — to process the meat.

        “That was the surprising thing,” Mr. Uible says. “We planned to raise breeding stock. I never meant to be a meat marketer.”

        Because there are so few buffalo herds in the region, there's little demand for breeding animals. Selling the meat was the logical alternative.

        Although buffalo don't need the same medical attention as more common beef cattle, Mr. Uible does have to coax his animals into a corral every year to be vaccinated.

        “The most difficult thing is separating out the bulls from the cows,” he says. “You have to work them slowly.”

        Mr. Uible works the herd on foot. Buffalo, which can weigh from 900 to 2,300 pounds, don't like horses.

        He also has to occasionally bring his buffalo home when they wander through a broken fence.

        Last year, eight head moseyed through a yard next door while a stunned neighbor was sowing grass seed in his new lawn.

        “The guy was cool about it, though” Mr. Uible says. “He even helped me ear-tag and vaccinate the buffalo this year”

        More frightening was the 1997 incident, when someone mysteriously shot and killed two of their buffalo as the animals grazed in a nearby field. The Clermont County Sheriff's Department never solved the crime.

        “The scary thing about that was whoever shot them was very close to our house,” Ms. Cassell says.

Not so easy to sell

               She and her husband have discovered that so far, raising buffalo is easier than selling it. Ms. Cassell began marketing the meat this year in the Tristate and met considerable resistance. Most of the markets she has approached have been reluctant to stock the buffalo — even though it is frozen and has a long shelf life — and even though she volunteers to promote the product with in-store samplings.

        “My dilemma is just convincing people to try it,” Ms. Cassell says. “A lot of people think buffalo are extinct or something.”

        Although mainstream Cincinnati may still be too conservative to accept “exotic” buffalo, she believes it will eventually catch on with consumers looking for a less-processed and leaner beef alternative. (Buffalo contains less than one-fourth the fat of beef and pork and about one-third the fat of chicken.) That's why Eckerlin's Meats at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine began offering Vista Grand buffalo in the spring.

        “One of our customers asked if we ever considered carrying buffalo,” says Eckerlin's owner Bob Lillis. “She was interested in it because of the buffalo's high nutrition.”

        So far, the buffalo has sold better than ostrich, another lean beef alternative, Mr. Lillis says. And the buffalo tastes good — very beefy.

        “Price is still one factor for many customers,” Mr. Lillis says. “People are conscious of paying $15 a pound for (buffalo) steaks.”

        In an effort to introduce buffalo to more people, Ms. Cassell has knocked on kitchen doors, trying to convince restaurant chefs such as Scott Melvin of the Heritage to put her meat on menus.

        “I think their product is better because it's raised locally,” says Mr. Melvin, who has served buffalo chili, buffalo Thai-style salads and grilled buffalo steaks with ancho-cherry sauce at the Plainview restaurant.

Not full-time jobs

               While she's not yet willing to give up on her Vista Grand marketing campaign, Ms. Cassell says ranching will never be their full-time vocation. But with or without the buffalo, she's not ready to leave the “God-forsaken” range for the city.

        “I really like the diversity of life here,” she says. “And I love the open space.”

        Her 4-year-old daughter, Emma, also likes living in the country and bragging that her family raises buffalo. Unfortunately, few kids or grown-ups believe her.

- Buffalo roam in New Richmond
Where to buy, eat Vista Grand Ranch buffalo
Recipe for Bison Chili
Buffalo once roamed U.S.

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