By JAMES LAWSON
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — As if being a roofing contractor wasn’t keeping Tom Pierson busy enough, he recently decided to try his hand at raising bison.
He’s now one of two Kenosha County farmers who are tending to a herd of the once-nearly extinct animal. Pierson’s farm is in Bristol, where he’s raising 13 head of bison — a number soon to rise to 17. Not far away, in Salem, 89-year-old Ron Lester is still tending to a herd of nearly 70.
Statewide, there are about 7,000 bison being raised on 30 some farms and ranches, according to the Wisconsin Bison Producers Association. Many of them, noted Rebecca Ries — a former officer with the organization and a bison farmer — harvest and sell the meat at farmers markets, in stores and to restaurants.
Bison, the farmers contend, are easy to maintain. Additionally, their low-fat, high-protein meat — which is good for steaks, briskets, tenderloins and ground chuck — is gaining in popularity.
Most bison farmers, Ries said, have free-range, grass-fed animals. Bison more or less take care of themselves.
“All you need is grass, water and good fences,” she explained. “You put them in a field of grass and let them be.”
Lester and Pierson — so far the only Kenosha County bison farmers — are known by others in the state. Close friends, they’re usually happy to help each other in any way they can.
Both are members of the National Bison Association and attend national conventions.
The 70-acre Pierson Bison Farm, tucked away in western Kenosha County at 20324 45th St., Bristol, is home to a herd of 13, including a huge 5-year-old bull and four cows that are expecting calves, Kenosha News reported.
Pierson, 58, grows and harvests his own grass and stores it in a barn for winter feeding.
As wild as the bison may be, he treats them almost as if they were his pets. On occasion he will hand-feed them carrots through a fence.
Pierson said he fell in love with bison 48 years ago.
“My dad brought me over to (Ron Lester’s) farm when I was 10 years old,” Pierson explained.
“When I met him again in 2010, I told him that I wanted to raise buffalo,” Pierson explained. “He told me to build a good fence and I’ll bring you some.”
Pierson, who operates the farm with his wife of 36 years, Meganne, had to build a very sturdy fence. He studied what he needed and two years later built one with cedar posts that are 11 inches in diameter and driven four feet into the ground.
After building that fence, he got his first herd in 2012 when Lester got him started with five bison. “He mentored me all the way,” said Pierson.
Three years ago, a fallen tree weakened part of the fence and some bison got out. He was able to get some of them back to the farm, but several had to be euthanized because they were out on the road.
Whereas some bison farmers hope to make money from their herds, Pierson views his as a hobby. His isn’t a commercial operation.
He only has one or two bulls butchered a year; much of the meat goes to family and close friends. His only customer is the Red Oak Restaurant, just a few miles from his farm.
Lester, a retired three-time decorated Purple Heart recipient and two-time Bronze Star U.S. Marine, became interested in bison when he was in the military.
After a stint in Okinawa and Korea, he studied them and began to teach a class on how to survive in the wilderness.
He liked bison because it’s an animal can survive on its own. It’s never too cold or too hot for bison; they don’t depend upon someone to feed or shelter them. They’re very communal.
On an open range, if they sense danger, they stick together.
“They create their own inner circle,” Lester explained. “Calves that are 10 to 12 years old still follow their mom,” he explained.
He started his own bison-farming business in 1955 in McHenry County, Ill., where he had a herd of 300.
Later, he sold that place and founded Lester’s Bison Farm, at 31807 60th St. in Salem.
A commercial bison farmer, Lester — who has a store and operates a mail order business — has a partnership arrangement where his bison and other products are sold at farmers markets in Lake Geneva, Kenosha, Burlington and Palatine, Illinois.
Lester’s grandson, Charles “Charlie” Radtke, 29, manages the farm store, which has some 40 products, including cuts of bison, some beef, pork, fish, alligator and some pickled vegetable products.
Radtke, a practitioner of mixed martial arts, said marketing comes through social media, the farmers markets, cross promotion from other vendors and word of mouth from customers throughout the country. Lester mails products to all 50 states.
“The store really has become sustainable,” Radtke explained. “Everything came together.