Northstar Bison succeeds by controlling every facet of its operation from gate to plate
CAMERON – Northstar Bison is a family-owned and operated, vertically integrated enterprise, that has found success by controlling production, processing and marketing of its products.
During a recent online seminar, Marielle Hewitt, a wife, mother and second-generation member of the management team, shared with GrassWorks members some of what the family has learned during the past quarter century of producing grass-fed bison.
“I’ve had a passion for what we do in our business from a very early age,” Hewitt said.
The enterprise was started by her parents Lee and Mary Graese as a hobby farm in 1994. Although both had been raised on farms, they were not involved in agriculture when they married and began raising a family.
“Each had established successful careers in nutrition, wellness and physical fitness fields,” Hewitt noted, “and they had a passion for healthy food and healthy living, and seeing people thrive physically.”
However, both had a desire to raise their young family in a ranch setting.
“That small part of agriculture, and work ethic, that had been ingrained in each of them began to resurface,” Hewitt said.
Hobby ranch begins
In 1994, the Graeses purchased 110 acres of river bottom land in northwest Wisconsin that had been a draft-horse farm, and then looked for ways to utilize the farmland.
“Their main goal was not just to have something they could enjoy but they wanted give their children the chance to live on a farm, make a dollar and have something to take care of and be responsible for,” Hewitt recalled.
“Dad’s idea was kind of ahead of its time," she said. “After much research and many farm visits, in October 1994 he bought the first two bison – a stout-statured 2-year-old bison bull and a healthy, 8-month-old heifer calf – during the annual bison surplus sale at Blue Mounds State Park in Southwestern Minnesota.”
Purchasing the bison also required fencing the property and building corrals. More bred cows were acquired, and soon they had 2-year-old calves ready for market.
“At the time we were feeding grass, hay and a little bit of oats because Dad wanted to make sure the animals had enough energy to get through the winter,” Hewitt said. “Mom was starting to look at marketing bison meat. Being a dietician, she had been actively involved in finding healthy protein for people.”
Mary Graese's research showed there was a large market for selling bison meat that was 100 percent grass-fed meat.
“She felt she could find a home for every calf he would raise. They found a butcher to process the meat but were still intending to remain a hobby farm,” Hewitt said.
Transitioning to a business
In 1997, they made the transition from a hobby to a business when they moved to a 320-acre farm five miles away that had really good access to a highway and customers for a retail store.
“All the land on the former dairy farm had been tilled,” said Hewitt, “but my father met with some grazing specialists who helped him use the bison to turn the land into pasture. They suggested feeding hay and fencing the land, and told him if he managed the bison well he would have a great grass system.”
Sales of bison meat continued to grow, and the retail farm store was doing well.
“In the early 2000s my mother created a website, and by early 2005, we were thriving on the ranch with plenty of grass, and our production system was growing. However, the processing plant was our biggest limitation,” Hewitt stressed.
“We had all this demand, and a vision of how we wanted to reach our customer, a website that was connecting people, and a good production model, but we didn’t have control of that processing link in the middle,” she said.
Following much research and prayer they were able to connect the chain to become fully vertically integrated, and in September 2005 purchased a processing plant in Conrath near Ladysmith.
“It was a worn-out facility but it was something we felt we could make work. It came with a talented crew, and we were also able to benefit from the plant’s existing customers. It’s been really important for us to have full control of all facets of our business,” Hewitt said.
The family expected that original plant to last for 10 years but outgrew the facility in five years.
“We moved our shipping facility back to our home ranch which was 65 miles from the processing plant,” Hewitt said.
Property became available near Rice Lake so the family made the decision to separate the kill plant and sausage facility from businesses' cold storage facility and warehouse.
"Our biggest need was for cold storage because we were selling retail,” said Hewitt.
That came together in 2011. In 2017, they had a rare opportunity to move into a processing facility in Cameron that was four times larger, while the kill plant remained in Conrath.
Northstar Bison needed to hire several full-time workers outside the family when the first processing plant was purchased, and also when Hewitt’s two sisters left to spend more time with their families.
“Prior to that time we had some part-time help and a secretary who was full-time to help with sales order tracking and fulfillment,” she said.
Hewitt's personal involvement remains heavily on the ranch side, because that’s where her heart is.
“I’ve also been heavily involved with the slaughter side of the operation. My brother has followed in my mom’s footsteps and is managing the customer part of the business, managing shipping and order fulfillment," she said.
Hewitt says a big challenge is finding like-minded people who have a similar passion for the work they do.
“You also have to be able to manage average workers and figure out how to get the most from their skills,” she pointed out.
Among the benefits of having dependable employees is being able to work smarter and take your vision to the next level.
“You can only work smarter and grow your business if you have really great people who you can delegate to, while focusing attention on the 20 percent of your business that gives you the 80 percent of the results you want. Because of that we’ve been able to have double-digit growth for the past two decades,” Hewitt said.
She also stressed the wisdom of focusing on business vision and goals, and not getting bogged down in daily chores.
“You can’t make good decisions when you’re worn out,” she said.
When they purchased the processing plant, the ranching enterprise had grown to producing 150 finished bison a year. Today Northstar Bison produces about 350 carcasses that are coming off 2,000 acres of owned and leased land.
Demand for bison meat has far outstripped the ability to produce all of that internally.
“We were able to establish some really good relationships with like-minded producers, and have been able to work with them to supply finished animals,” Hewitt explained.
Those partnerships have enabled them to develop a diversity of offerings that include grass-fed lamb, pastured pork, and pastured poultry.
“We sell nine species of humanely harvested, 100 percent grass-fed or corn and soy-free poultry, and that brings a lot of pounds into our plant that is still able to be sold at a retail price on our website,” she noted.
This year the business will slaughter around 1,000 prime bison carcasses.
“As the plant business grew one of the trickiest things we dealt with was making sure our stocking rates are correct," she said. "We don’t want to have our plant dictate how we manage the ranch, and we have to monitor that every year.”
Northstar Bison has multiple sales channels including sales to restaurants and grocery stores.
"We’ve also done some private label sales, with some other meat companies that have purchased bison through us. However, our core marketing focus is selling direct to consumers. We want to own that end consumer relationship,” she emphasized.
More information on their business and products is available online at northstarbison.com