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By Shauna Struby
In the big sky country on Highway 37 near Hinton, hawks make those infamous lazy circles high in the sky above grasslands, and on a clear day the cerulean blue sky seems to wrap like a soft silk scarf around the world. Highway 37 twists and turns several times and then suddenly you top a hill and see North America’s largest land mammal, herds of James and Sandy Stepp’s American bison grazing the grasslands of Wichita Buffalo Company at Sandy Springs Farm. Kings of the prairie, bison are a sight filled with majestic splendor, echoing the rich heritage and history of the West.
Sandy Springs is one of a growing collection of farms offering tours, farm-to-table dining and shopping all in one place. The idea for the Stepp's farm came when visiting North Dakota bison ranches in the late 1990s. It was there they discovered the delicious taste and nutritional value of bison meat which is lean, high in iron, and has less fat and cholesterol than salmon, beef, pork or chicken. Intrigued by this magnificent native animal’s suitability to the harsh extremes of the prairie climate, in 1999 the Stepps founded their farm on 320 acres near Hinton.
Native to North America and a member of the bovine family, bison are considered a keystone species to the American plains and once roamed across much of the continent. With large shaggy heads and powerful bodies, they can weigh up to 2,500 pounds and stand six feet or more at the shoulder. Prior to settlement of the plains bison were estimated to number between 30 and 70 million, and then in the late 1800s bison were very nearly hunted to the brink of extinction. Thanks to the vision and foresight of a few individuals and Theodore Roosevelt, federal legislation passed to protect the remaining bison, and today bison are recovering on private and public lands, with a total population estimated at about 250,000.
As word of the Stepp’s delicious bison meat and nutritional prowess spread, their business grew, and over the past few years their business has grown so fast that the Stepps find themselves hard-pressed to keep up with demand as they deliver their primarily grass-fed bison meat to restaurants, grocery and health food stores, and farmers markets throughout the state. Along with demand for bison meat, curiosity about the animal itself and the Stepp’s farm has grown as well, an interest Stepp said he understands.
“I am endlessly fascinated with bison, although I do take them for granted sometimes since I’m around them every day. They are wonderful animals and I have no intention of ever raising anything else,” said James.
The Stepps responded to the many requests they receive for viewing bison up close by adding a visitor center on the farm. And these days visitors can take advantage of an additional authentic experience – basket weaving classes by Pauline Asbury of Habasketry, a retired teacher and basket weaving pro, are offered once or twice month.
“I think people enjoy the accomplishment of weaving a basket. When they see what a beautiful thing they’ve done and how useful it is, many of them move on to make baskets on their own,” said Sandy.
Tours of Sandy Springs Farm are by reservation only, and visitors have several options including a hay ride to see the bison, an informative slideshow, sampling of bison jerky, and purchasing bison products. Large groups may host meetings at the center with catered meals featuring bison burgers, steaks or barbecue with all fixings. Meals are available only to groups of 25 or more. To view bison in the wild in Oklahoma, visit the The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, or the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, the oldest managed wildlife facility in the nation’s fish and wildlife system.