The other red meat

GREG ELLIS GREW UP IN A zoo. At least that's what some of the neighbors might have thought when he and his four siblings raised 29 chickens, three ducks, at least 13 cats, a handful of dogs and other miscellaneous creatures in their back yard, a half-acre plot in Austintown, recalls Gene Ellis, Greg's dad.
Today, the younger Ellis, now 41, raises much bigger and faster beasts.
His buffaloes -- Ellis owns The Bison Ranch on state Route 45 in Ellsworth Township -- can outrun a horse, jump 6 feet high and barrel through barbed-wire fences. One grew so big his hide could be used to carpet a room -- the hide is on display inside Ellis' 150-year-old barn, which serves as a retail sales area for frozen buffalo meat and buffalo- and American Indian-theme gifts.
Ellis started the buffalo meat business about eight years ago after he bought five of the animals on a whim.
Since then, raising buffaloes and selling the meat has become "a hobby that costs a lot of money," says Ellis, who earns his living working in construction.
Fairly steady demand
Demand for the meat "jumps a little" every time there is a report about beef cattle infected with mad cow disease, he said, but most business comes from repeat customers. Some are heart patients who eat buffalo because it has a fraction of the fat of beef, chicken or turkey, Ellis says.
Buffalo meat is also lower in cholesterol and calories than other red meats and poultry and is considered a nutrient-dense food.
Other regular customers are outdoorsmen who prefer meat from nondomesticated animals.
"Buffalo are wild animals," Ellis stresses. "When they get mad, they will attack you."
He knows about that firsthand.
"He got pretty banged up when he went for a ride on one," his dad jokes.
"I didn't go for ride, he went for a ride on me. I was underneath," Ellis banters back while recalling the time one of his animals charged him while he was trying to load it into a trailer.
One of the beasts charged his dad too, but stopped inches short of the barbed-wire fence. "That's when I stopped feeding them grass out of my hand," Gene Ellis says.
Promoting the business
To draw attention to his buffalo meat business, Greg Ellis has hosted American Indian powwows, concerts and grass drag races for snowmobiles at his 46-acre farm.
Although turnouts have been good, Ellis says demand for the meat hasn't increased substantially and he has reduced the number of animals he keeps -- he has only four at present, all calves.
The store is open one day a week -- Saturday -- and despite operating on limited hours, Ellis says The Bison Ranch has virtually no competition.
The Bison Ranch has sent buffalo-meat gift packages to recipients as far away as Hawaii, but most customers live within 60 miles of the store, Ellis adds.
Although he refused to eat the chickens he raised as a child, Ellis says he has no problem digging in when buffalo meat is on the table.
"After they try to kill you, it doesn't bother you at all," he said with a chuckle.