VERMONTVILLE - U.S. Rep. Bill Owens got an up-close look at one of the North Country's few bison farms Monday.
The Democratic congressman from Plattsburgh toured Ron and Beth Edgley's growing bison farm on 500 acres straddling Norman Ridge Road in Vermontville. The couple currently have a herd of roughly 70 bison and have started selling bison meat to local restaurants and stores. They hope to expand the operation in the next few years.
Owens said the Edgleys' bison farm "fits into the whole small farms approach and local food idea that's been growing in our communities.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, left, D-Plattsburgh, talks with Ron and Beth Edgley of Vermontville during a tour of the couple’s bison farm on Norman Ridge Road.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"We have a lot of small farms that have developed in Essex and Clinton counties," he said. "People are getting more and more of their food locally. This is another step in that direction, and I want to support that."
Owens' visit also came just hours before the congressman was scheduled to return to Washington where members of the House and Senate are scheduled to begin long-awaited negotiations on renewing the Farm Bill. The bill, which sets policy for farm subsidies, food stamps and other rural development projects, has moved slowly through Congress over the last two years as lawmakers have focused on higher-profile priorities like budget negotiations, health care and immigration legislation.
Speaking with reporters after Monday's tour, Owens said he was optimistic the Farm Bill will move forward, although he said it's still unclear what issues the House leadership will take up in the remaining 19 days of the current session.
"I'm hopeful, however, that they'll move the bill along because it's essential for people in the district for that to happen," he said.
The main challenge in getting the five-year, roughly $500 billion bill done will be differences on food stamps - officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP - which millions of Americans rely on for nutrition assistance. The Republican-led House has passed legislation to cut around $40 billion from the program over a decade. The Democratic-controlled Senate has proposed a cut of around $4 billion.
"Clearly there's going to be some reduction in food stamp funding," Owens said. "That is not necessarily wholly problematic, as long as (the cut) stays in the $4 billion to $10 billion range. I think the number, if we're going to get a bill, will be between $4 billion and $10 billion."
Owens met with the Edgleys in the couple's home, which overlooks the farm and their bison herd. Previously potato and grain farmers in Lake Placid, the Edgleys relocated to Vermontville over the last few years.
Ron Edgley said the bison farm is in its infancy. He credited his daughter Erika, who was also there for Monday's tour, with steering them toward bison after attending college at the University of Wyoming and graduate school at the University of Montana.
"She kept coming home and telling us that if you don't want to miss the boat you better get into raising bison because that's where it is these days," he said. "Ranchers in the West are slowly switching back to bison or (going to) bison for the first time. We got a few animals, just 10 to start with, and we thought we'd try and see if we liked them.
"It was maybe a retirement option to get out of the seed potato and grain business. We had been in that for 30-plus years, and it was time for a change. This was a way out of large-scale farming and into small-scale farming."
The health benefits of bison meat, as opposed to beef from cattle, are one of the reasons the animals have been growing in popularity among farmers, Beth Edgley said.
"That's kind of the reason we got into it," Ron Edgley said. "It's a little bit trendy now, and I think it's headed into that direction for the foreseeable future because of the health benefits. They're lower in cholesterol and higher in protein than beef."
However, the animals are a big challenge to raise. Ron Edgley said their handling facilities have to be "extra tough" because the animals are not domesticated; they're still wild.
"We've done a lot of infrastructure work with miles and miles of fencing, and we built a corral system to handle these animals," he said.
Owens asked where the bison are taken to slaughter. The Edgleys said that's probably their biggest challenge. They've been taking their bison to slaughter at Tri-Town Packing in Brasher Falls, but Ron Edgley said they have a "limited window when we can bring them and when we can't because they're a handful when you get them to the facility.
"They have been good to us," he said of Tri-Town. "We've only butchered three or four a year. We're headed to the point where we think we have 30 to 50 a year, and that will probably supply the Tri-Lakes market, but when we ran that by Tri-Town they weren't really excited about it, so we're looking at other options."
The Edgleys hope to grow their herd to 150 to 200 bison in the next few years.
"We haven't had enough to sell yet to really explore the market here, but where it's gone so far - a couple of restaurants and stores - they've been happy with it and it's been selling well," Beth Edgley said. "The first indications are good, I would say."
"For other bison growers in the country, the demand is astronomical," Ron Edgley said. "Everybody seems to be able to sell as much as they raise, so it's promising."
Later, after he surveyed the bison herd from a raised walkway in the farm's corral, Owens said the operation is "pretty nifty.
"Looking at the size of these animals, they're really impressive, and the amount of work that's been done here in terms of constructing the facility," he said. "This is a good thing that's good for the whole community."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.