They show up on quarters and flags; they are eaten as burgers or jerky; they can be a sports team logo or even the name of a city – a True American Legend – the Bison.
I met Peter and Erica Cook many years ago at a New Ventures conference and was totally blown away by this couple! Not only did they have the cutest little girl, Luci, with them toddling around but they also had a passion for a type of Agriculture that was completely foreign to me — bison farming! I have followed them over the years and we have bumped in to each other from time to time at a meeting or a conference but I have to admit that when I started working on this blog post – again, I was completely blown away at their passion and dedication to this unique industry.
I recently had the chance to interview Erica and I decided to write this post as a Q/A so you can hear the passion, hard-work, dedication, and entrepreneurial spirit directly from her!
Q) Can you tell us about your farm history and how many generations you go back?
A) “Our farm is located in LaGrange County and was purchased in 1939 by my husband’s (Peter) grandfather. He purchased the house, a bank barn and approximately 83 acres for $5000. Grandpa (Everett Cook) raised popcorn and it took him about 2 years of good crop to pay off the ground. He also had your regular farm animals: cows and chickens. He and his dad made hominy and horseradish and sold it in the area. Everett later went on to be involved in a family hardware business and joined with a partner and started the company Domex, Inc. which was a wholesale propane company. My in-laws (Wayne and Sharon Cook) were then given the farm in the 60’s. Wayne too worked for the hardware and later went on to be a partner in the propane company. He rented out the ground to local farmers until 1983 in which he put the ground into a CRP program until 1998. We started the bison business in December of 1998 with about 30 bison. We currently own about 700 acres and 400 bison in Indiana along with a farm in North Dakota of about 1200 acres and 1000+ animals which we purchased in 2010.”
Q) Why did you choose Bison? How did you get started in this type of business?
A) “Peter became intrigued by bison out in the Yellowstone National Park area after traveling there for about 4 years in a row on family vacations. He loved the history of the animal – how millions once roamed the country. He loved the American West and also Native history. About this time, Peter was studying finance at Indiana University of South Bend and during one of his finance classes began researching the animal. He stumbled across the National Bison Association and soon became a member and went to their annual conference in Denver and began networking with bison producers and enthusiasts. Peter was about a year from graduation and the farm ground was soon to come out of the CRP program. He decided that with his interest in bison, his research and his networking; this led him to bison ranching. It took a little of convincing to get his dad on board, who at this time still owned the ground. Once that was settled he and his dad began preparations for the arrival of our first 30 bison which came in December of 1998.”
Q) What role do you (Erica) and Peter play in the family farm?
A) “Peter is definitely the rancher/farmer. Neither one of us grew up on a farm; however, with being in a large farming community it was easy to learn and have a lot of mentors. None of these local farmers were bison producers, so it took a lot of trial and error and talking to other bison producers to find our niche. Peter currently heads up managing the herds which includes anything from feeding, to making hay, building fence, assisting in vaccinations and ear tagging, etc. He is also currently serving his second year as President of the National Bison Association which includes a lot of traveling to national, state and regional bison conferences and auctions. As far as my part, I love people and children. I do love the animal but the daily chores haven’t been my niche. I enjoyed it a lot more before we had children and a tour business. About a year after we started raising the animals, we started a small agri-tourism business, while I was in college obtaining my education degree, mainly hosting school field trips and now have expanded to include not only schools but also families, retreats, motor coach groups, etc. I manage that business along with taking care of our two children, Luci (9) and Levi(5). We have a small gift shop on the ranch and a small internet meat business as well that I assist with and I also get to enjoy traveling with Peter from time to time.”
Q) What is the most interesting thing about your farm that you would like consumers to know?
A) “This isn’t profound, but the animal is probably the most interesting part. Bison have a rich history in our country and have become an important symbol of American history. In the early 1800’s about 40-60 million bison roamed the country and they were hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 1900’s in which less than 1000 remained. There are so many that utilize the bison as a symbol/icon including our very own Indiana State Seal and the bison is currently in the running for the National Mammal.”
Q) What do consumers need to know about cooking / eating bison meat?
A) “Buffalo meat is cooked in much the same way as any other red meat, but its taste is more rich and flavorful than today’s alternatives. It is lower in fat and cholesterol, and higher in protein, vitamins, and minerals than many other protein sources. In general, buffalo meat is best when cooked slowly, at a low heat, and turned often. It tastes best when cooked to medium-rare. Buffalo may be used in any of your favorite recipes, but remember that because buffalo is such a lean meat, you must avoid overcooking (in other, more fatty meats, the fat acts as an insulator and adds to the cooking time).”
Q) How can consumers visit and/or learn more about your farm?
A) “The best way to learn about our farm is by visiting our website. We have a main tour season that runs Memorial Day-Labor Day; however, we have other dates available with a reservation. It is best to call for tour times and schedules. Our on-site gift shop, selling bison meat and other gift-shop related items is open year round but again times vary. Visitors can also purchase our meat products online.”
Q) What do you enjoy the most about your family farm?
A) “The quality of life and the lessons learned on the farm. Raising a family in a rural farm area is a blessing. There are so many lessons about life that God teaches us through nature and I am thankful to be a part of that and for our children to have the opportunity to learn these lessons and to share them with others. I love sharing the farm with others, especially those who have never had the experience of being on a farm.”
The Cook’s have taken their farming operation to the next level by opening it up and sharing it with the public. They offer farm tours, school visits, group events, and they will be hosting their annual “Calf Day Celebration” on June 15th. You can also follow this farm family through their Facebook page. Along with their heritage pride; the Cook’s have added the “Star of the Tatonka People” quilt block to one of their barns and recently joined the Barn Quilt Trail of LaGrange County.
Erica’s passion for this True American Legend shines through when she says, “Owning a farm or any type of business is never easy and has a lot of challenges, but through it all I know God has been with us and I am thankful He has used us to be a part of His creation.”