In an era when people want food with story, bison rancher Ken Klemm is catering to their curiosity by sponsoring a traveling museum exhibit that puts the meat he produces into a rich cultural and historical context.

In an era when people want food with story, bison rancher Ken Klemm is catering to their curiosity by sponsoring a traveling museum exhibit that puts the meat he produces into a rich cultural and historical context.

Before arriving at the High Plains Museum in Goodland, Kansas, the 1,200 square foot exhibit appeared at the National Bison Conference in Denver in January and is scheduled to move to museums in Iowa and Montana in the months to come.

Along with displaying artifacts and informational panels, the museum is also hosting a series of special events. The final session is set for Saturday, March 11, at 2 p.m., with historical accounts and storytelling by John Carson, the great-grandson of Kit Carson and a park ranger at Bent’s Old Fort National Historical Site.

“So many people don’t understand the history and how these animals literally built the soil we are standing on,” Klemm said of his desire to host the exhibit. “I just thought it was a win-win to do this.”

Ancient and enduring as the species is, it also fits well with contemporary trends in modern food and dining. It’s naturally produced (bison apparently don’t take well to artificial insemination), native to North America (rather than imported) and its production helps to enhance ecological and agricultural diversity.

“The trends supporting this industry haven’t gone away, they’ve intensified. It’s not a fad,” Klemm said during an informational panel held at the museum. “You can’t get more natural or sustainable than something that has been part of our eco-system for thousands of years,” added Dave Carter, the executive director of the National Bison Association, based in Denver, who also participated at the event.

To highlight the goodwill the animals inspire, the two pointed out that when the bison was designated as the national mammal last spring, the vote by Congress was unanimous, transcending the political rancor in Washington D.C. “The neat thing is how it crosses lines,” Klemm said, highlighting another recent case in which he was able to host a group of visitors from the Taos Pueblo to share his interest in sustainable ranching.

The bison story is vivid with survival and resurrection. In the late 1880s, they nearly died out, when reportedly fewer than 800 were left. That tragic arc also played out in the marketplace during the industry’s dramatic boom and bust of the late 1990s. Klemm, who also runs grass-fed beef cattle in conjunction with his bison herd on a ranch north of town, said it was Allan Savory’s model of holistic management and an enduring belief in how bison fit the landscape that helped him weather the rollercoaster.

Kevin Rippe, an ag lender based at Atwood, Kansas, said now that the market has stabilized the “comfort level” for financing bison production has increased. “Ten years ago getting financing was more of a challenge than it is now,” he said.

Farm Service Agency-backed beginning farmer loans, in particular, are one way for new and younger producers to enter the business. In fact, that’s how Klemm himself got started nearly three decades ago.

Having agricultural experience and access to a contiguous land base, which minimizes the need to corral and haul bison between pastures, are factors Rippe said he would look for in a successful loan application.

One challenge traditionally has been establishing a market value for bison, since they aren’t typically sold through local auctions the way cattle are, he noted.

Still, Carter was quick to counter that the market’s uniqueness has a silver lining. Bison prices aren’t tied to cattle prices and have actually moved in an inverse relationship in recent years.

“We as an industry wanted to decouple ourselves from that market,” he said. “Commodity producers are on one path, but if I’m a rancher I don’t want to be a commodity producer. After we made that choice, we really began to evolve as a business.”

The federal Ag Marketing Service, he added, has been tracking bison prices since 2004.

The cattle industry today still dwarfs the bison trade. Approximately 120,000 cattle are processed every day in the U.S. compared to just 60,000 bison in an entire year. The average consumer eats about 55 pounds of beef annually and only a fraction of a pound of bison meat.

Still, by relating the colorful history and cultural significance of the iconic animals, bison producers hope to convince consumers that in addition to having a place in history the animals deserve to be featured more often on their dinner plates.

“There’s huge growth potential,” Klemm said. “This is the only agricultural industry I know that doesn’t have an oversupply problem right now.”