From the Editor: It is my great pleasure to introduce to you a particularly special set of essays written not by professional journalists, or accomplished food bloggers, or even veterans to the local food movement. No, this next group of essays was written for CFSA by a class of English 102 students at UNC, whose professor wanted to give her students something truly important to write about. Thank you, Erin, for being such a great role model to these students and for sharing your love of all things delcious, nutritious, oh yeah, and sustainably-local!

by Julian Moten

Atop a grassy hill, a white, one-story house overlooks Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm. This farm is one of the largest buffalo farms east of the Mississippi and is owned by Jack and Sandy Pleasant. Jack, a former professor in the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, was interested in buffalo from a very early age, ever since his days as a boy scout and a camping trip to Philmont Scout Ranch. “You never know what little things you do in life will stick with you,” he explained to me with a smile. Today, the land on which his buffalo roam was originally a farm that had been in his family for years. When the time arose, Jack decided to re-cultivate the “once upon a time farm.” This time, however, it would be a buffalo farm.

Jack takes great pride in his livestock. Each and every day he attends to all needs of the buffalo on his nearly self-sustaining farm. This process begins with the growing of hay that is then harvested and bailed. The bails are then wrapped in a plastic and allowed to “ripen” so that when they are unrolled the buffalo get the maximum nutritional value out of the hay. Feeding the buffalo such healthy hay also decreases the amount of waste produced, which, in turn, reduces the strain on the land since the livestock requires less feed. Jack can also control the quality of his hay using this procedure; if he grows the food himself, then he knows what the buffalo are eating and can ensure that his livestock get the best quality of food. He chooses to use hay over commercial feed because in his eyes, it is more ethical to do things the way that nature intended.

When the buffalo are not eating hay, they are free to graze in the fields. Two herds of buffalo rotate through different feeding plots to reduce the environmental impact. This rotation allows the buffalo to fertilize the fields that originally fed the buffalo in a self-supporting cycle, which is as close to nature’s way as Jack sees possible.  He does, however, use a small amount of commercial fertilizer on the fields to not only assure that there is always enough food for the livestock but to also help fight the erosion of topsoil with strong, healthy grass.

Another part of the job involves continuously weighing the buffalo herds, which is truly a labor intensive process. First, the buffalo must be herded from the field—a task which itself can take hours. Then, one by one, the buffalo must be guided through a system of gates that ensures the security and safety of both the animal and the farmer. This endeavor can, at times, take hours per animal. While the weighing sessions take place, antibiotics are usually administered to ensure the health of the livestock. While there are not “feedlot industrial” conditions at Sunset Ridge, the weather in North Carolina isn’t nearly as dry and naturally resistant to bacteria as the western feed lots, so bacteria populations tend to thrive in this climate, which can wreak havoc on livestock. At Sunset Ridge, the buffalo undergo around three antibiotic treatments per year, whereas buffalo on industrial feedlots may undergo as many as six. And while the use of antibiotics does disqualify Jack’s buffalo from being certified organic, he says that he would rather do all he can to both ensure the quality of his buffaloes and protect the consumers. “The relationship with the customers is a huge part of farming and something that I enjoy,” Jack told me, again with a smile.

But Jack’s hard work doesn’t stop here—we can’t forget about how he sources his herds in the first place, which, as Jack informs me, is quite an endeavor in itself.  For starters, he has to acquire buffaloes both from live births on the farm and from outside sources. The herd itself is built from many different types of buffaloes to ensure that genetic variation within the herd remains at a high level, which in turn keeps the genetics of the herd strong. The herds contain buffalo from North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Ohio.

But despite all of this hard work and the long, long (did I mention long?) hours he must put in, Jack still feels that sticking with it has been worth it. You can tell by the smile that comes over his face when he shares stories about his farm that he gets great joy out of his interactions with the buffaloes.  He enjoys the sun on his face, the wind, the smell of fresh dew, the smell of the grass and the sounds of buffalo hooves in the distance. He also says that nothing can compare to the interaction with the customer at the farmers market. Even though a relatively small number of buffalo farms exist, there is a huge demand for buffalo meat, so there are always people who are excited to buy it. In fact, demand is so high that Jack has had numerous offers from major grocery stores that are willing to buy all he can produce. He has turned them all down, however, due to his beloved interactions with the people and the “little things” that make his job as appealing as it is. This is what sets Jack and his farm apart: he does it not for the money and not for himself, but for the people who love what he does, and for the joy of being a part of something larger than himself—the system of a self-sustaining, local, coherent food system.

Jack believes that we should be working toward a local system that has its own infrastructure, its own economy, and its own self-supporting and self-sustaining job market—one where everyone offers their own special goods or services, and where each play their own roles in “keeping it local.” This is what Sunset Ridge Farm is all about.  Between the feel and spirit of the buffalo, the natural feeding methods, the low impact grazing techniques, Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm is truly a one of a kind place.