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Buying bison

Full Circle bison meat had customers' seal of approval almost as soon as Williams ranchers Tobias and Abigail Hatfield started selling it in 2003.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stamped Full Circle bison meat as certified organic, a status that only broadens its already wide appeal, Tobias Hatfield says.

"The bison itself has become more and more popular," he says. "People are realizing what a great meat it is."

David Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, says bison enjoys a "sweet spot" between interest in healthy foods, sustainable farming and a broadening American palate. Americans last year bought 31 million pounds of bison meat, about double from five years earlier. Full Circle's sales at Medford and Ashland farmers markets have doubled within the past two years alone as customers have become more interested in eating locally produced foods, Hatfield says.

"People realize that the meat has traveled no more than 50 miles," he says. "That's almost unheard of."

Raised entirely on organic pasture and hay, Hatfield's bison are slaughtered in his fields, and the meat is butchered at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point, also USDA certified to handle organic meat. Taylor's sausage in Cave Junction cranks out Full Circle's most popular products: salami and hot dogs.

Rapid increase in demand allowed Full Circle to embark on an entirely direct-to-consumer sales strategy this summer, when Hatfield stopped his supply to a handful of local grocery stores. Full Circle also pared back its restaurant customers, retaining only Standing Stone Brewing Co. and Grilla Bites in Ashland and Magnolia Grill in Ruch, Hatfield says.

"There's no need for us to wholesale to grocery stores," he says. "There's no mark-up. It's definitely kept the price reasonable for our customers. Purchased at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market or from the ranch's "honor store," the meat ranges in price from $8.75 per pound ground to $26 per pound for tenderloin steaks, one of the most popular cuts. Purchasing online from www.fullcirclebison.com adds additional charges for handling, packaging and shipping.

"We get new customers every day," Hatfield says. "Maybe they just found us on the Internet."

Yet the Hatfields encourage customers to visit the 120-acre ranch on Caves Camp Road. While there are no formal tours, visitors can observe the bison behind 7-foot-high electrified fencing. Because the animals are wild, ranch staff don't have any close contact with the herd of 90 bison, 30 of which are harvested every year after they reach the age of 2 and about 900 pounds.

Entirely grass-fed, Full Circle's bison have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than beef and lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids, more prevalent in animals that are grain-fed. Much of the bison meat sold domestically has been raised on some quantity of grain, Hatfield says, adding that Full Circle's practices, as well as USDA organic certification, put his ranch in the minority.

In general, the leanest bison cuts have just 143 calories and 2 grams of fat per 3 1/2-ounce serving, compared with 9 grams for the leanest cut of beef. For that reason, care must be taken not to overcook bison, which can be stand in for beef in any recipe. Most cooks say bison, though, is "beefier" than beef.

"A recipe like lasagna or meat loaf will come out less greasy and lighter," Hatfield says.

Burgers are one of customers' favorite ways to prepare bison, Hatfield says. Because ground bison usually is more than 90 percent lean, burgers will have the best flavor and texture if cooked to rare or medium-rare at most, contrary to the federal guideline of 155 F.

Similarly, steaks should be cooked to no more than medium-rare, or the meat will come out dry and tasteless, says chef John Ash, author of "American Game Cooking." Tougher cuts, such as chuck, brisket and short ribs, need to be cooked at a low temperature for a long time in order to get tender results. Although bison has much less fat than the same cut of beef, it has substantially more collagen, the connective tissue in muscle. When cooked at a low temperature over a long time, this collagen eventually melts, creating fall-apart tender meat.

"Buffalo" is a common U.S. marketing term for the meat of bison, the proper name for the herd animal native to the North American plains. Bison once numbered close to 125 million, but by 1900, they had been hunted to near-extinction. The population began a slow bounce back in 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt founded the American Bison Society, the United States' first effort to save the iconic animal.

Bison robes, hides and skulls also are popular with Full Circle customers, who can buy those commodities online, at the ranch or farmers markets. In addition to selling bulk bison leather, Abigail Hatfield crafts bags from the material.

Humane treatment of the animals also is an aspect of their important business, Hatfield says, adding that, before slaughter, he honors the bison with the traditional American Indian offering of tobacco.

"That's kind of our version of kosher."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Tobias Hatfield has been selling meat from bison raised on his Williams ranch since 2003. - Bob Pennell