WRITTEN BY BILL FISHBURNE
If you want to live to a ripe old age, and if you want your children to be as much above average as those at Lake Wobegon, consider eating the mighty American bison.
This was the conclusion reached many years ago by Dr. Frank King when he combined a study of the American Plains Indians with nutritional analysis of bison meat.
Dr. King, a Naturopath and Chiropractor, was looking for ways to provide better lifestyle choices for his patients. What he found was astounding.
According to the US Dept. Of Agriculture, a four-ounce serving of USDA Choice rib-eye steak (beef) has 280 calories and 33 grams of fat. The same portion of bison has 180 to 200 calories and just 8 grams of fat. Another great Southern staple, channel catfish (dry cooked) has 214 calories and 13.3 grams of fat.
Clearly, bison was worthy of further study. And so were the Plains Indians.
Looking at materials gathered by anthropologists for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Dr. Richard Steckel, Distinguished Professor of Economics, Anthropology and History at The Ohio State University, reports the bison-dependant Plains Indians of the late 1800’s were the tallest and healthiest people in the world.
“The average adult male Plains Indians averaged 172.6 centimeters, about 5’-8”,” Dr. Steckel writes in a recent edition of The American Economics Review. “The next tallest people were Australian men, at 172 centimeters, followed by European American men at 171 centimeters.”
Other literature suggests the Plains Indians regularly lived to be 100 years of age. Although documentation is sparse for the general Indian population, the lives of three great Lakota Sioux chiefs supports that hypothesis. In 1890, Chief Sitting Bull was 59 when he was killed by Indian police trying to force him back on the reservation. Chief Red Cloud was 87 and died of natural causes in 1909 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Chief Two Strike, who rode with Sitting Bull against Custer at Little Big Horn, died peacefully in his sleep at the Pine Ridge Reservation at age 84.
Their white American contemporaries were not so fortunate. Former General and President U.S. Grant died of cancer in 1875 at age 63. Confederate General Robert E. Lee died of a stroke in 1870, also at age 63. Union General George B. McClellan died in 1885 at age 59.
What was the difference? Surely these respected white Americans had better health care and diets than the Plains Indians.
The difference that stands out is that the Plains Indians in the 19th century ate lots of bison. With great equestrian skills the men would ride on the hunt from their home villages, following the nomadic herds. The women and children maintained their villages, raised crops and gathered herbs and roots from the forests. Their homes were teepees and when necessary, they folded them onto their poles, lashed them to horses and trailed them along following the buffalo herds.
While the Indians were eating bison their white contemporaries were eating cows and potatoes. (Want fries with that?) When the Plains Indians lost their wars and were put on reservations, they, too, started eating cows. The fruit of all this civilization is that today the life expectancy of a Great Plains Indian is 67 years vs. 75 to 77 years for white Americans in the same areas (US Department of Census 2010, data from Montana and Oklahoma).
The evidence is clear. Bison is a more healthy red meat and is even healthier than some fish. Dr. King gets it, and has devoted his life finding better ways for his patients to live. From his childhood years on his father’s ranch in Ohio to today’s Carolina Bison operation, King has learned that the Plains Indians and their relationship with the bison was a near-perfect pairing.
“The Indians were dependant on the buffalo,” King says. “They used every scrap from the meat and intestines to the bones and hides. It took 14 buffalo hides to make a teepee and all their winter robes were made from buffalo. The bones made things ranging from spoons to scraping blades and jewelry. The intestines made strings for their bows.”
The Plains Indians also respected the bison and killed them only out of necessity. With an estimated bison population between 30 and 60 million in the mid-19th century the horse-mounted Indians could have over hunted. With rare exception, they never did. But the white settler had no such affection for the great hairy beast.
Cattle ranchers didn’t want the bison around. The two-ton bulls could walk through their fences and not even notice. Then, since bison are herd animals, a bull broaching a fence could be followed by thousands of the grazing animals, eating the grass and crushing all the crops in their way.
The advent of railroads brought the need for commercial hunters including Buffalo Bill Cody and the equally skilled Buffalo Bill Comstock. In 1867 the two frontiersmen actually had a shoot-off for rights to the “Buffalo Bill” name. History shows Cody won 69 to 48 but there is no mention of what happened to the buffalo they shot. Such were the mores of the day.
Cody went on to fame in a wild west show. Comstock died in 1868 at the hands of rebellious young Cheyenne braves after an otherwise-friendly visit with Chief Turkey Leg. Such was the nature of the Plains Wars.
Between 1840 and 1900, hunters hired by the railroad companies, ranchers, farmers and governments from federal to state, territorial and local levels, hunted the American bison nearly to extinction. Bison, unlike horses or other wild game, huddled together when threatened with the biggest bulls on the outside. The defense would have worked well against wolves and pre-ice age saber toothed tigers. But shooting the stationary bison was a simple matter of getting close enough with a rifle that was big enough, and not running out of ammunition or breaking your shoulder.
“By the early 1900’s the bison were essentially wiped out,” King says. “Those that survived were generally on protected lands, such as Yellowstone National Park.”
The influence of his youth on his father’s 450-acre farm runs deep. But rather than studying agriculture or animal husbandry in college, he decided instead that he wanted to learn more about natural healing. Lord knows, the region he came from needed healing.
Lowellville, population 1,155, is close to Youngstown and less than a mile from the Pennsylvania state line. Plopped down on the North and South banks of the Mahoning River it is in the industrial area that provided workers and services to the old Sharon Steel Works complex. Today the town’s 322 families live off of farming, small industrial shops and whatever services they can provide to their larger neighbors in Youngstown and New Castle, PA.
It was in Lowellville in 1979 that King established a clinic on a no-outlet road in the middle of the farm. The building is on a small lake his Dad built from a swamp. Through the years the clinic became well known for its natural approach to healing and disease prevention, employing four naturopathic and/or chiropractic physicians.
“It was a great place to grow up,” King says. “We raised registered Angus and showed them all over the U.S. I was very familiar with the cattle business. But I had also read this study about how bison has less fat than fish and about half the calories of some beef.
“I had patients with issues that I felt were related to their diets. There was a bison farm near us so I started putting patients on bison as their primary red meat source. These were folks with high cholesterol and triglycerides. The blood work we did showed us that these patients were seeing improvement in these levels, actually more improvement than with any of the drugs they had tried. They would come back and say they felt better, too. ‘I have more energy, I feel stronger, my headaches are gone, my heartburn is gone, even my hemorrhoids are gone.’
“We kept hearing this all over. This was real. We saw allergies go away, energy improvement, people getting the spark back in their lives. So we started watching their blood work for more than just cholesterol and triglycerides. We saw improvements in their lab tests in general.
“Of course, we were working with them in many ways with a more natural lifestyle, more water and such, but the big boost came when we started people on the bison diet.
King describes bison as “The Schwarzenegger’s of livestock. “Pound for pound they’re just so strong, and they live about four times longer than beef. They can live to be 45 years of age. A bison could have 40 calves in her lifetime. That’s huge, and you know they’re still wild animals. If you look at the bison spine, its skeleton, as you go up the back the spine sticks up high just like the dinosaur skeletons. Many people believe the bison survived the ice ages. If you look at prehistoric bison skulls they’re just like the bison we have today.
“Bison have this big beard and big hair on their front legs only. The hair is for pawing the snow away and with the beard they’ll come in and sweep it away. They can smell grass as deep as three and four feet under the snow. They just paw through it, sweep it away and eat. They are amazing survivors. They carry qualities we just don’t see in the domestic breeds. We really messed up by changing the domestic breeds.
“Seeing these benefits from bison and having grown up on a beef farm, I started raising them myself in 1985. I bought an additional farm and put them out there. We started with 23 animals. We bought the gold and silver trophy champions at the National Livestock Show in Denver that year. It’s the largest livestock show in the world. That started the herd and we’ve been multiplying it ever since. We have the largest bison herd in the eastern U.S. In addition we have 100 animals grazing out west right now. We sent them out in the Spring. They’ll finish out on the plains and we’ll harvest and finish them in Denver.”
The King ranch in Leicester is part of the Carolina Bison operation. It has between 300 and 500 bison grazing in seven pastures arranged around a center corral, head gates and loading area. Michael Whitaker, a native of South Africa, is the General Manager of the Carolina Bison company. Mike Ellington is the Ranch Manager.
“We have a very unusual operation,” Whitaker says. “We’re FDA certified as both an organic farm and a grass fed farm. You have to work hard and do things right for a long, long time to get and keep those designations. But that’s what we’re all about. We’re doing things right to raise healthier bison with a more nutritious meat.”
Ellington talks about both the planning and day-to-day farm operations. “We operate the pastures in strict rotation,” he says. “We’re over grazed right now, and we’re trying to expand. We’re having to supplement their diets with hay. We have 100 animals grazing out west this year. They’ll be harvested and finished off in Denver at the end of the summer. We also have other farms in the local area that meet our standards and provide us with stock.”
Finding qualified nearby pastures is a challenge.
“You can’t mix bison with cattle,” Ellington says. “You can’t even mix a new bison in with an existing herd like you can with cattle. Cattle will sniff and mix and that’s it. Bison are different You can put a new bison in the pasture but for months it will stand off out of the herd. We brought 43 new bison in from Alabama and for about six months they had their own herd.”
Whitaker, Ellington and Dr. King also work hard at establishing the right diet for their herd.
“Bison need a lot of selenium and vitamins A, D and E. We’ve had our own mineral block made for them. Nobody really knew what bison needed that was different from cattle until they started tracking the herd in Yellowstone. They found they were walking in a big circle. All along the way they found there were selenium deposits. The areas the bison didn’t go didn’t have selenium.”
Whitaker gives a quick overview of where the Carolina Bison and DK brand organic meats can be found locally.
“We sell it at Earth Fare, Harris Teeter. Ingle’s and others. We’re in some of the top restaurants. You can get steaks, rib-eyes, kabobs and ground meat. Prices depend on the cut but it’s about a third or more higher than an equivalent cut of top-quality steak. The costs associated with raising bison are just that much higher. We don’t run a factory farm. I won’t kill that animal because we need beef. When it goes to market if it comes off of Dr. King’s farm, it’s the best it can be. We’re not just raising animals and killing them, selling beef. We’re trying to do the healthy thing for our customers. All these animals are well taken care of. The cost of feeding each one is about $1,000 per year. They eat better than most people in North Carolina.
Back in the office, Dr. King is dressed to go to the ranch. A red cowboy shirt, blue jeans and gorgeous alligator boots. His body may be behind his desk writing two new books but his heart is still out on the range.
“You’ll see our bison if you’ve ever been to the Red Stag restaurant across from the Biltmore Estate at the Grand Bohemian Hotel. Our rib-eye is on the menu there. It also rotates around the menus at all the restaurants on the Biltmore Estate. There was an executive chef in here this morning from The Swag Inn out in Waynesville, up on top of a mountain. A beautiful mountain inn and restaurant. It’s a fantastic place and they’ll have the DK brand on the menu. But you don’t have to go there for bison. It’s available at a broad spectrum of locations including the major local grocery stores that buy local meat products.
In addition to his Carolina Bison operations and the DK brand meats, Dr. King founded and operates KingBio in the Emma Air Park industrial complex. KingBio dietary and naturopathy products are marketed now in 15,000 outlets. He says that will grow by an additional 50,000 outlets by the end of the year.
“We are serious about natural health care,” Dr. King says. “I think we should worry more about how to create health assurance than we should health insurance. Somehow we got it backwards. It’s time we changed that.”