In the midst of row-crop country, on 70 acres of prime pastureland in central Illinois, visitors can catch an unexpected glimpse of 18th-century history. A small herd of bison roams the open green space – a throwback to a simpler time when as many as 60 million bison roamed the continent from Mexico to Canada.
Terry Lieb bought his first bison in honor of that noble heritage, but he soon realized the animals could help support his family farm. He now sells the grass-fed bison meat from his home in 1- to 2-pound packages, and the hobby-turned-side-business is booming.
“Consumers want to buy direct from the farmer these days,” says Lieb, who processes six or seven bison each year. “They want to know where their food comes from, what it ate, how it was raised. I can provide all that for them.”
Craig Wynne of Decatur has been buying bison meat from Lieb Farms regularly for the past four years.
“You never know what is being put in the food that you purchase,” Wynne says. “Lieb’s bison is 100 percent natural, and it’s a healthy alternative to beef, pork and chicken.”
Bison meat is high in protein and nutrients and low in calories and fat, with a slightly sweeter and richer taste than beef, according to the National Bison Association.
The meat’s health benefits draw many of his customers, Lieb says, and the taste keeps them coming back.
A fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer, Lieb – who runs the farm with his sons, Josh and Jake – bought his first bison eight years ago on a whim at a farm sale.
“I had always thought about buying one or two and having them as a curiosity,” he says.
But it went a little deeper than that.
Since he was a child, Lieb has been fascinated by the Old West, and he views bison as a symbol of those free-spirited times.
“I feel I’m doing my part to help preserve our nation’s history,” he says. “American Indians and the early settlers lived off bison at one time. This was the original beef. It’s a connection with our past.”
Lieb bought a bison cow first. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, he took 50 acres of highly erodible land out of crop production and returned it to pasture. He re-fenced the farm, bought a bull and started raising them from there.
Before long, cars started stopping along the road by the farm, and visitors crowded by the fence to take photos and video of the grazing bison. Requests for meat soon followed.
Lieb now has 24 head of bison. He can see them from his dining room window and hear their grunts when they wander near the house.
“They don’t moo – they grunt,” he says. “That’s how cows talk to their calves. They sound more like pigs.”
Bison bulls weigh between 2,000 and 2,500 pounds full-grown, he says, and they can run up to 35 miles an hour and turn on a dime.
“When they’re in pasture, they’re pretty docile, but they’re wild animals, and you have to respect them,” Lieb says. “They’ll let you know when you’re getting too close. If one sticks his tail straight up in the air, you’d best be moving away real fast.”
He plans to expand the bison business and add a tourism component someday – maybe in 10 years or so when he turns the farm over to his sons.
But for now, he’s happy with the way things are going.
“I wasn’t looking to get rich off the bison or anything,” he says. “I just like them. If I didn’t sell any meat, I’d probably still have them.”