FREEMAN, S.D. | Among a chorus of cicadas and songbirds in the tallgrass prairie, barn swallows swoop down around 14 head of bison. Their thick tufts of fur make the best nest.
Once they see the poky, four-door farm truck bouncing along the wheel-worn path in the pasture, the herd runs away. The bison are best left alone. Wild. And free as can be on 40 acres, where they’ll live and die.
Last year, Nate and Jessica Preheim welcomed their first herd of grass-fed bison from the Santee Sioux Tribe, north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and officially formed Windstone Buffalo Company, selling steaks, roasts, briskets and grind.
Before becoming bison ranchers, they lived in Colorado, Hawaii and Florida, following employment opportunities. They had cushy, white-collar jobs. He worked in the tech industry. She was a nutritionist. And a vegan.
When she started showing symptoms of adrenal fatigue, her doctor prescribed more protein. The suggestion seemed absurd. She’d been a vegan for six years, but in her weakened state, she obliged.
Bison was the first meat that she started eating again, which led to whisperings of raising buffalo. And he knew of just the place.
While his father entered the mental health field and moved to the greater Denver area, his father’s twin brother stayed on the fourth-generation family farm in Freeman, less than a mile down the road from the Mennonite church with its stained glass steeple.
His uncle, who’s in his 70s, still lives in the farmhouse. The intrepid entrepreneurs live in a camper.
“Instead of saying that, which sounds kind of depressing, why don’t we just say we live in a tiny house?” he said. It’s got hot water and air conditioning. There’s electricity but no Wi-Fi. “It’s about making sacrifices for your dreams.”
Nate, 33, and Jessica, 30, imagine building a cabin or a yurt – or maybe a real tiny house – on the property at some point, but for now, they can take comfort in knowing they have warm winter retreat.
They bought a beach house in Ormond, Florida, before they quit their jobs. They rent it out over the summer and return in the winter, taking their bison meat with them to sell at farmers markets down south where there’s no competition.
Jessica’s experience in the fitness and nutrition industry gets put to use developing recipes and informing curious customers about the benefits of bison meat. She goes to the farmers market in Vermillion, South Dakota, on Thursday evenings. Nate wakes up at 3:45 a.m. every Saturday to make it to the Sioux City Farmers Market on time.
“Most people think we’re kind of crazy. But I think not,” he said. “There’s just a really strong demand for good, healthy, lean meat.”
Americans eat less than one pound of bison meat each year, compared to 54 pounds of beef and 106 pounds of poultry, according to the USDA.
Despite these statistics, the National Bison Association says bison is one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States meat industry, and consumers are embracing it as a low-fat, high-protein alternative to beef.
There’s another big difference between bison and beef. At Windstone, the field is the kill floor.
Each buffalo is humanely harvested in the pasture with a state inspector present. Throughout the summer, a single shot from a rifle barrel brings down these majestic creatures one by one. They’re quickly killed and bled in the field.
The carcass goes to Renner Corner Locker, just north of Sioux Falls, for processing.
Nate learned the harvesting technique from the Sustainable Harvest Alliance on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota. The organization strives to help small bison producers, especially those on reservations, bring their meat to market in a humane, environmentally-friendly, culturally-acceptable way.
This year, the Preheims started out with 19 bison, and at last count, they had harvested five. Within two years, they’d like to start a breeding herd and raise the bison from calves.
That means making more fences out of salvaged power poles.
Even though she didn’t want to live on a farm at first, Jessica’s taken a liking to the work.
“We chose to do this to pay our bills for the lifestyle,” she said. “We could still have the jobs that we had before, and I can guarantee you, we’d be living a lot more comfortably, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. And I think he is, too.”