SCHELLSBURG - What started as a hobby has turned into a lucrative business and a tourist attraction in Bedford County.
The Darrow family started raising bison in 1988 near McCoysville in Juniata County.
"My dad [Bill] called me the Sunday before doe season in 1988 and said he had some bison coming. It was his idea to go into the business. He had never mentioned it to me. It was right out of the blue," said Richard Darrow, co-owner of Darrow Bison Range with his wife, Ann. "We started with four head. It was a hobby at that point. We also had hogs and were getting out of the hog business and were trying to find something else to do."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
The Darrow Bison Range in Schellsburg has evolved from a hobby into a lucrative business.
In 1993, the Darrows moved to Bedford County, where they operate the bison range on more than 1,400 acres along Route 30, two miles west of Schellsburg.
By then, their herd had grown to 28.
"We still weren't serious about it, not until we saw the cars lined up along the road. Then the light came on," Richard Darrow said. "In Juniata County, we had a lot of acreage but very little pasture."
"Here we have pasture, so we expanded the herd," Ann Darrow said.
The herd grew to about 300 bison by 2004, and that was when the Darrows decided that was too many to handle. Today, they have about 100 bison on the range.
"We are rebuilding now. I would like 20 more brood cows. That would put me at 50 to 60 cows. I would like to have a total heard of 160 to 180 within the next couple of years," Richard Darrow said.
The Darrows produce quality breeding stock and sell the bison meat from their Bison Corral Gift Shop, which they opened in 1995. Their meat is also sold at some nearby restaurants such as Jean Bonnet Tavern, which sold nearly 5,000 bison burgers in 2013.
Jean Bonnet Tavern has been selling bison meat for more than 10 years, said owner Melissa Jacobs.
"From the beginning, we had guests that were very excited to see a bison burger on our menu. Many people recognize the nutritional benefits of bison meat as compared to beef. It is lower in saturated fat, more nutrient rich, a great source of protein and has a richer flavor," Jacobs said. "We also have many guests who try it for the very first time because it is a locally-raised product."
"There are a lot of people who can't eat beef, but they can eat bison. It has half the fat of skinless roasted chicken," Ann Darrow said.
Bison meat is similar to beef.
"It is a lean meat, similar in texture to beef but with a very light sweetness to it - not a sugary sweet, but a light sweet after taste," Richard Darrow said.
The Darrows sell T-bone, porterhouse, New York strip, sirloin and flank steaks, as well as london broils and chuck roasts.
The Darrows sell more meat than they produce and bring in bison meat in from West Side Meats in South Dakota.
"We get West Side for bison franks and polish and Italian sausages. I get them because I like them, and they are a consistent product and do well for us," Ann Darrow said.
In addition to bison meat, the gift shop sells a variety of gifts with a bison theme, including authentic Native American-made gifts, carvings, hand-painted feathers, T-shirts, bison leather moccasins, knives, pottery and a large selection of Native American jewelry, which Ann Darrow brings back from New Mexico.
The bison range and gift shop have become a tourist attraction - agriculture and tourism are the top two industries in Bedford County.
"Visitors to Bedford County love to see the bison grazing in the fields. They are very majestic and an unusual sight for many people," Jacobs said. "With both of our businesses being located along the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, it is a natural fit to visit both the bison farm and the historic Jean Bonnet Tavern. They send visitors to us to try their product, and we send visitors to them to see where their food came from."
"The gift shop is a unique shopping opportunity, and it is always an interesting site when the bison are grazing in the fields along the Lincoln Highway. I'm sure that both visitors to Bedford County, as well as residents, enjoy seeing the herd in their travels," said Kellie Goodman Shaffer, executive director of the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce.
The Darrows don't offer public tours but are available for question-and answer-sessions. They also give talks to scout and school groups.
Despite their docile appearance, bison, which can weigh between 1,000 and 2,200 pounds, are wild animals.
"They go full throttle all the time when you are with them. They are not for the faint of heart. Anyone who handles livestock can adapt to them, but it takes some time. They are challenging to handle," Richard Darrow said. "Bison know what the fence is for. It is to keep you out."
Richard Darrow said it is a good time to be in the bison business.
"The market looks up and looks sustainable. There is more and more interest in the product. We have things to work out. We are still working on a bologna product and getting consistent products," Richard Darrow said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.