Who’s the Boss?

For John and Karen Sticht, “retiring” meant leaving their day jobs in the Cleveland suburbs to put in longer workdays than ever, tending to the needs of their 70-plus head of buffalo and the upkeep of the Harrison County home where they roam. But at least in his “retirement,” John doesn’t have to cut the grass. The animals take care of that.

That’s how it all started, the couple joked last week during my visit to the Boss Bison Ranch on Unionvale Road outside Cadiz. “He didn’t want to cut grass,” deadpanned 71-year-old Karen from behind the desk where she wrangles the phone and computer, answering questions, taking customers’ orders and organizing events such as the upcoming second annual Baby Bison Days on June 21-22 at the farm.

John, 72, laughed and explained that a high school friend of his purchased several acres in Aurora on which he had planned to keep bengal tigers. He never got the animals, but John and Karen had a running joke with him that he should buy some buffalo to keep all that grass under control.

About 25 years ago, before the Stichts decided to retire – he from the dental lab he owned and she from a job in health insurance – they dreamed of buying some land of their own and building a log cabin. “But, I thought, ‘I don’t want to mow all that grass,'” John said. So, he half-jokingly asked Karen to look into buying some buffalo.

What she learned intrigued her. “I fell in love with the animal,” Karen said.

“They’re majestic. They’re very calming. They’re interesting animals because they’re very intelligent. They’re easy to take care of. They don’t need a barn. As long as they have water and food, they’re happy,” she said.

She also learned about sustainable bison farming and the superior nutritional properties of bison meat.

“Buffalo” is the name Native Americans gave the animal, derived from a French term. The proper name is American bison.

The couple joined the Eastern Bison Association to learn more, and for 12 years they operated as wholesalers of bison meat from their suburban Cleveland home.

Thirteen years ago, they decided to retire (insert Karen’s hearty chuckle here), and they found some land in Harrison County to start their own ranch. It was a full-fledged working farm in the mid- to late-20th century but had been empty for more than six years when they bought it.

Instead of their original plan of 10 acres, they now own about 180 acres. The Boss Bison Ranch has about 70 head, but that number grows by the week as more calves are born.

To celebrate this year’s births, Boss Bison Ranch will host its second Baby Bison Days event June 21-22. The focus of the family-friendly event is Native American culture, with a blessing of the approximately 20 calves by a Native American chief; plus dancers, drummers, candlemakers, flint-nappers, blacksmiths, Native American artisans, a tomahawk contest, wagon rides and primitive camping.

The relationship between Native Americans and bison dates back hundreds of years. The largest land mammal in America (they can grow to 6 feet tall and weigh more than a ton), the bison provided tribes with everything from food to clothing to utensils to ceremonial implements. In the 1500s, 30 million-60 million of the animals lived in North America, according to estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By the end of the 19th century, as the railroads pushed west and the global demand for hides grew, nearly all bison in the U.S. had been killed.

In the 20th century, protective measures began, and by the end of that century, the population had rebounded to 250,000. Today, that number has doubled, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tribes across the U.S. and bison producers such as the Stichts are pushing Congress to pass the National Bison Legacy Act that would make the bison the national animal.

“I think because we almost drove it to extinction, we should honor it,” Karen said.

“They were here before us,” John said with a shrug and a smile.

Besides, Karen said, they represent American values – they are survivors: strong, sturdy and stubborn. John said that’s why he named the ranch Boss Bison – “They are the boss!”

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A few minutes after John’s comment, I got to see just what he meant. We hopped in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck and headed up the road, then onto a dirt track and up through a grove of trees into a hilly paddock where the herd was grazing. As the animals mow down one of three areas on the ranch, John rotates them to the next. The grazing areas are fenced in and separated with 6-foot-high electric wire.

The electric fencing is necessary, John said, because once a bison has a mind to go somewhere, fencing won’t stop him. Barbed wire is just something they “comb their hair on,” he noted, pointing out their extra-thick wool that covers their extra-thick hide.

Because we were on their turf, we stayed in the truck, but it wasn’t long before a cow (female bison) named Nubs made a beeline for us. She was banking on the fact that John had brought treats – it’s usually bread, but this time, it was hot dog buns. (Both male and female bison have horns. Nubs got her name because her previous owner removed her horns.)

Then along came Snitch, the herd’s smallest bull, so named because he gets around and knows everyone’s business. I took pictures from the passenger seat as both critters poked their snouts into John’s truck window, eager for treats. I laughed as their long gray tongues snaked around the buns that were offered.

Then, John said, “Here comes The Big Boy.”

Oh boy. I was not prepared for this guy. The Big Boy is the main herd bull, the head honcho. And he is BIG. His head filled John’s entire window. I laughed in amazement as I snapped pictures. A few minutes later, I got the chance for an extreme closeup as the 1,600-pound beast came around the truck and went nose to nose with me. I giggled like a ninny as I proffered a hot dog bun. He snorted in my face and drooled on my notebook.

Next came, Roberta, a.k.a. Bobby, who sauntered over to greet us, too. She is easy to recognize because her horns are delightfully crooked, reminding me of a Muppet monster. She was orphaned and raised by humans, so she is fairly tame and loves attention.

Prior to that day, the closest I had been to an American bison was from the train at the Good Zoo in Oglebay Park as a kid. If you are interested in a closer look at these awesome creatures, Bobby, Snitch and Nubs will all be on hand at Baby Bison Days for visitors to pet and feed, Karen said. Bring your own buns.

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Back at the office, which doubles as the Boss Bison Ranch store, where they sell cuts of meat and other buffalo-related items, Karen talked about the business of bison and benefits of consuming the meat. The Stichts learned the business of farming by visiting and consulting several other bison farmers in Ohio, and they got advice from the Ohio State University Extension agriculture office and, of course, the association to which they belonged.

Karen attributed the rising popularity of bison to one man: media mogul Ted Turner. He owns about 35,000 head; and, through his restaurant Ted’s Montana Grill, he has presented bison to Americans in the simplest and most accessible form: the burger.

Bison also is gaining ground because of its nutritional value. Compared to beef, bison has 2 grams of fat per serving vs. 8-18 grams; and 143 calories vs. 201-283 calories. It also is slightly higher in iron and has about the same amount of protein.

The bison graze almost exclusively on grass and hay; they are not fattened up with genetically modified corn. In extreme situations, such as an ice storm that limits their mobility, they get a high-quality, natural blend of wheat, oats and barley, Karen said. Bison farmers are not permitted to give growth hormones, and they keep any inoculations and medicines to a bare minimum and use them only when absolutely necessary.

The resulting meat is super lean and requires special cooking methods – for instance, lower roasting temperatures and less cooking time in general.

Karen said she feels good that “we are helping people.” One customer is a cancer patient who couldn’t eat and whose nutritionist recommended she try bison. She had no appetite, but within a week of consuming broth made from bison meat, she began eating the meat. Her protein levels improved and her strength returned. “Her doctors told her to keep it up, whatever she was doing,” Karen said.

The store freezer is stocked with cuts ranging from tenderloin steaks to roasts to ribs to hot dogs. They sell from the store and also ship anywhere.

They also have one restaurant, Hide A Way Buffalo Grill in Canton, “home of the buffalo burger,” that buys a whole animal every two months; and, they sell cuts to Zelinski’s Restaurant in Wintersville and the Mustard Seed natural food store in Solon.

The Stichts also responded to the demand for the oil and gas field workers and opened their mobile truck on weekdays at the ranch, from which they serve burgers, brisket sandwiches, sides and more. If all this talk has you hankering for a bison burger, the wagon will be set up at Fort Steuben Days in Steubenville until 5 p.m. today.

Retirement might not be what they imagined it would be, but the Stichts are OK with that.

“Do we regret it? No. We both love this farm very, very much. We love our animals,” Karen said.

Boss Bison Ranch is located at 45701 Unionvale Road in Cadiz and online at www.bossbisonranch.com.