Art Johnson, the paterfamilias at Noblesville's Bison World - who will say of his pre-retirement life only that he "owned a couple corporations" - started collecting bison in 1999. But it was a hobby for him until late last year, when his two sons, Sam and Andy, came home after a year or two of college having decided it wasn't for them.
So, in need of a source of income, the Johnson clan bought an old golf cart store a little south on 37 and began selling meat from their bison herd.
"I used to give the meat away," Art says. "That was back when one animal cost under $600 -- these days they cost around $3000 each." Art explains that the bison market collapsed about 10 years ago, and people were literally giving their herds away. (Bison are also known as buffalo, a term coined by European settlers because they thought the animal looked like a water buffalo, although the breed most often seen in the States is the plains bison).
But the market for bison has now dramatically rebounded, and the Johnsons are taking advantage of the shift. Sam is in charge of husbandry - taking care of the herd and getting them processed - and Andy runs the store.
Which, by the way, looks a little like a natural history museum. When you walk out of Bison World, you can go home with buffalo steaks and burgers; but if your heart so desires (and you have $12,000 burning a hole in your pocket) you can also take home "George," the Johnson's first herd bull, who was 24 years old when butchered (and subsequently full-body stuffed). The store boasts watusi mounts, a raccoon or two, ample bison, and even a couple of bears; buffalo leather, hide rugs, skulls and horns - most available for sale to the animal decor-inclined.
"When bison ruled the land between Ohio and Washington, the Native Americans used every single bit of the animal - nothing was wasted," said Sam as he drove through "The Valley," a clearing for power lines that's a favorite spot for the herd. Lined with trees and graced with a stream fed by a well pumped from below the water table, the 1000-pound animals find relief from the heat during the steamy Indiana summer.
Sam, who would like to return to college someday to finish his degree in biochemistry, gets most excited when describing the personalities and genetic strengths within the herd. The main breeding bull and largest animal, "Little Joe," was one of two male offspring from one "Chief Joseph" who sold for over $100,000 at auction (to another rancher) and was then struck by lightening after breeding just twice. But apparently, Little Joe doesn't rule the roost - that role always goes to a female, who can go from benign to viciously aggressive in a flash if her authority is challenged.
So far, all of Bison World's customers are from word-of-mouth. Doctors and chiropractors recommend the lean meat to their patients. Others like it because it's local and 100% grass-fed (they grain-finish some animals for 90 days, at the request of restaurants who like a little more fat in their steaks). Federal regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in bison, so for many it's a cleaner, safer dinner option.
Customers can buy online (bisonworld.org), or try the meat at several Carmel restaurants (the brothers are looking to expand sales to Indianapolis restaurants as well). A very lean cut, they recommend quick-searing a steak, then cooking in a separate skillet at low temperatures - pink in the middle is well-done. The burgers can be grilled just like beef, and are surprisingly tender and flavorful considering their low fat content.
But for locals, the best way to buy is to make the trek to the store. You might not find deer and antelope at play, but the stuffed 1200-pound bison on the front porch offers a welcome that can't be had at the neighborhood grocery.