Get big or get out, people warned Craig and Elizabeth Fischer when their farm was new and their herd was small.
The Fischers decided to get different instead.
On Friday, Craig Fischer headed home from the livestock auction with something very big and very different.
Thirty more bison for the family's thriving herd at Sleepy Bison Acres in Sleepy Eye, Minn.
"It's been a difficult 12 months. We kind of stuck our necks out," Fischer said by phone as he shuttled the adult bison and yearlings from the auction site in Luverne to Sleepy Eye, an hour and a half east.
A year of brutal drought has withered the pastures and decimated the hay. Feed prices are soaring. And now they have 30 more mouths to feed.
But the Fischers believe in the bison.
"I believe there's a lot of people who have not eaten bison and do not understand how good it is for you and also how good it tastes," he said. "We just have to go out and find more of that market."
Sleepy Bison's herd roams free across the farm's rolling pastures, doing what bison have always done to this landscape.
Bison are a keystone species that evolved and shaped the great tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains. Their teeth cropped the grasses, making space for prairie wildflowers. Their wallows — the dusty depressions created when a 1-ton animal flops blissfully on its back to take a dust bath — created habitats for nesting birds and insects. Their dung fertilized the prairie. Their hoofs aerated the soil.
We hunted the bison to the brink of extinction. We nearly plowed the prairie into oblivion.
Once home to huge herds, Minnesota now has about 5,000, maybe 10,000 bison, depending on who's counting.
Now the state is working to restore some of what we lost. The Minnesota Zoo and the Department of Natural Resources are nurturing small herds — about 150 animals — at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and Minneopa State Park near Mankato, hoping eventually to build up a herd of 500 bison on state lands.
Because space is limited in the parks, public auctions such as the one Friday shift surplus bison to small commercial operations, including Sleepy Bison.
"It takes a special breed of rancher to get involved in this," said Adam Ulbricht, executive director of the Minnesota Bison Association. "They truly appreciate the species. You're talking about a 2,000-pound animal that can run 35 to 40 miles an hour for six miles. It can stop on a dime and clear a 6-foot fence from a standing position. ... It is an animal that is still very close to what nature intended it to be."
Bison and Minnesota were made for each other.
"It can be negative 50 degrees, and they're standing up, playing around, calves might be chasing each other," Ulbricht said. "In the winter, you'll see them facing into the wind, because the wind blows down their fur and helps insulate their body. Everything else is trying to shelter in place, huddling up to get warm, and here this animal is just doing what it does and looking into the wind."
For ranchers such as the Fischers, raising bison is a chance to tap into a growing market for lean protein and regenerative agriculture — and a chance to restore one of Minnesota's lost landscapes.
At Sleepy Bison, the bison roam, hogs root in the forest and chickens forage in the fields. Practices they hope will restore the land and preserve this way of life for their three little boys.
With their new bison home from auction, the family is preparing for the winter farmers market season. Anyone interested can check the Sleepy Bison website to see when and whether their goods are coming to town. In the Twin Cities, look for them at winter markets in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"We're happy to share our joy in raising these animals," Fischer said. "It makes me happy to see the bison up in the pasture, the pigs in the woods, and to share that with others."