Being awarded an all-expense paid trip to one of the most premier bison ranches in North America will make anyone jump for joy. For an EPIC employee this a special honor. It’s right up there with hearing the news that Beyoncé is making a special appearance at your birthday party and Jay-Z’s covering the tab.
While very grateful, I was a bit nervous about the trip from Texas to Wisconsin. Although I have flown many times throughout my life, it had been a while. As I prepared to board my flight in Austin, those pre-flight butterflies started churning in the pit of my stomach. I approached the cabin door and paused as the line of people entering the aircraft stopped. Just before setting foot on the plane, I gently put my hand on the fuselage as if to encourage myself and the Boeing 737, “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, let’s do this.”
The excitement returned when I remembered how much I love take-offs, as well as the fact that I was going to be accompanied on this trip by EPIC’s most senior employee and my dear friend Andrea Romero, EPIC’s head of graphic design. Andrea and I both started at EPIC as interns when the company consisted of only seven employees (including founders Katie and Taylor).
This nervous excitement reminded me of a few years back when we were working hard to secure a direct relationship with Northstar Bison. Words like “game-changing” and “impactful” were often heard echoing in the conference room as Kirk Blanchard, EPIC’s director of operations, was hard at work trying to seal the deal. Good thing for us, Kirk is the best at what he does. Fast forward a couple years to today, and you’ll find EPIC has a designated area in the Northstar facility.
We sought out a direct relationship with this bison supplier for various reasons, but Lee Graese, founder of Northstar Bison, summed it up when he said about bison: “They’re an incredible animal. An incredible creation. I just want to do right by them”
The day after arriving in Minneapolis, Andrea and I set out for Rice Lake, Wisconsin. It was 74 degrees and sunny outside (too bad our rental car wasn’t a convertible). We arrived at the Northstar offices two short hours later and were greeted with the warmest of welcomes by Northstar’s staff. Marielle Hewitt, Northstar’s COO, and her brother Sean, Northstar’s branding and marketing manager, soon made their way from their offices to be our hosts for the day. Sean and Marielle are Northstar’s second generation, and part owners of the family business.
First stop on the tour was to meet up with Northstar’s plant manager, Jim—a jolly fellow you could tell right away was a product of the Midwest. I’ve always admired the character and charisma of the Midwest folk (possibly why I married a Chicago girl), and Jim was no exception.
“They here?!” boomed a voice out of Jim’s office as Sean walked us through the main entrance.
A charismatic introduction ensued, and, after some firm handshakes, we started our tour of the Northstar plant. After donning our frocks and hairnets, Jim took us to an area where four of Northstar’s finest were cutting and trimming whole quarters of bison meat that would eventually end up in EPIC products. A bone saw split a quarter section of bison meat and bone effortlessly like a razor blade cutting through warm butter. After a masterful display of craftsmanship by the crew as they hand carved protein from bone, we were escorted around the different areas of the plant and shown all the various steps in Northstar’s process. We even walked into the largest (and coldest) storage areas I’ve ever been in. The concrete floor inside was like walking on frozen glass.
After the plant tour, we removed our hairnets and returned our frocks up at the entrance. A white Ford F-150 waited for us outside that would haul the four of us (Sean, Marielle, Andrea, and me) to serene ranch locations. Lush green trees and pasture filled our eyes. As we approached the center of the field, a herd of furry, powerful beasts awaited our arrival.
When we finally approached the bison herd, it was apparent both the ranchers looked upon this bounty with the same excitement and respect as they did when their father first introduced it to them—if not more. Through the principles of holistic land management, Sean and his sister have seen the land regenerate right before their eyes. Where corn crops once grew, lush grasslands now flourish and provide a net positive return. From the carbon sequestration to the high-quality protein derived from this land, it became more common sense and less science as they explained their process.
Once we were in the midst of the herd, the ranchers informed us that we were in for a real treat. A 12-year-old, 1,200 pound bison made her way toward us and closer than any other bison dared.
“This is Anna,” Marielle introduced. Anna was orphaned by her mother at birth. We were informed that it’s common practice of bison to rear only one calf when twins are born. Marielle told fond stories of bottle feeding Anna when the family first identified her as the abandoned twin. Since she was born, Anna has been more than part of the herd. She’s family. Andrea and I were able to get up-close and personal with Anna. Being able to appreciate these animals in this way was more of an honor than I had ever dreamed of.
We couldn’t have asked for more gracious tour guides. Marielle and Sean soon proved to be more than extensively knowledgeable bison ranchers—they were gracious mentors to us for the day. They understood the animals, the land, and the simple yet perfectly orchestrated relationship that existed between the two.
We walked around the herd, and Sean continued to educate me on the land and animals as Andrea took this opportunity to capture pictures of our visit. As I continued to listen to Sean talk about the efforts at Northstar, Marielle laid her head gently on Anna’s back. She affectionately used both hands to scratch her hind quarters—Anna’s favorite thing in the world. Anna closed her large eyes and lifted her massive head up towards the sky with contentment.
The tour was coming to an end. Andrea snapped the last few photos, and Sean and Marielle started talking shop as we headed back towards the truck. I gave the herd one last glance , trying to fully appreciate and soak in this moment. At that time, Anna made her way towards me. I started rubbing her soft brow and forehead between her horns. I was in absolute awe of this animal, her herd, and my surroundings. My mind silenced. To describe that moment as peaceful doesn’t do it justice.
During my first few days at EPIC, Taylor laid out our mission, including the prioritization of sourcing from only the best suppliers. To us, grass-fed is beyond organic, and leaving the land better than we found it is as equally important as a pillar upon which this company was founded. Taylor informed me at that time (2013) that only about two percent of all bison in North America were grass-fed. Today, that number has increased to about seven percent grass-fed. While we are proud of this is progress, we still have a responsibility as consumers and food manufacturers to continue to tip the scales so that grass-fed is the majority. Simply put, we have a lot of ground to cover. Let’s do this.