Mike Fogel took a unique path to his place in the meat industry. Buffalo Gal, www.buffalogal.com, operates from the grounds of the Money Creek Ranch in Houston, Minn. Mainly a marketer of buffalo (bison), wild boar, Meishan, Scottish Highlander beef and other niche meats, Buffalo Gal owner, Fogel, navigated a few twists and turns in his business strategy to evolve into a thriving online meat retailer.
“I started in bison almost 50 years ago, and I raised them in Wisconsin,” Fogel said. “Then, I went to Montana and I leased 60,000 acres out there and had 650 head of buffalo. I wanted to get real big. I found out that being real big isn’t always necessarily the way to go.”
The Money Creek Ranch covers a little more than 100 acres and is home to about 60 head of buffalo and a varying number of Russian wild boar, also called Eurasian wild boar. Spring water on the property means watering the herd in the winter is not necessary. Fogel also leases a 5,000-acre pasture in South Dakota where he raises another 150 head. His Scottish Highlanders reside on a leased farm in Wisconsin where they are bred and raised for meat.
Fogel has intentionally made the numbers smaller over the years to get away from the business of raising and producing and focus on the marketing side of the business.
“We’re heading that way with all our animals,” he said. “We want to be able to buy them from people who raise them like we do.”
Fogel said the company buys more than 50% of the animals it slaughters and sells rather than raising them, which is a change. Because of specialization, the cost of land and the available land being bought by large corporate farming, it didn’t make financial sense to breed, raise, finish, slaughter, market and sell animals all within the same company.
Fogel will still sell animals when the opportunity arises, and Buffalo Gal always offers to buy animals back from a producer it sells to once they’re ready.
“What we’re kind of counting on now is other people that have small acreages that are interested in raising the buffalo,” Fogel said. “This week we shipped some buffalo to North Carolina and they’re going to raise them down there.”
It’s at this point in the process that Fogel’s years of experience in ranching and farming give him an advantage in today’s marketplace.
“After they raise them and feed them, they may try marketing product themselves. But to do the marketing, that’s a big part of the whole business,” Fogel said. “The website, the boxes, we’ve got to have our labels approved, etc. People find out what’s involved, and they realize they can’t, or don’t have the time and the resources to, do it themselves.”
The change from raising to buying animals for product isn’t the only evolution Fogel and Buffalo Gal experienced over the years. When Fogel first got into the business of raising buffalo, the scales favored selling animals rather than slaughtering them for the meat.
“Years ago, when the numbers were down, I used to sell the animals,” Fogel said. “I didn’t get them processed because back then there wasn’t a real good market for buffalo. You’d go to a grocery store and try to sell them buffalo and they had no interest in even trying it. So, back then I’d deal in the live animals.”
But the industry changed over time. Now, buffalo meat has a place in many mainstream retail grocery cases, along with numerous specialty markets and websites offering the meat. Fogel said there was a time when banks would laugh if you asked to borrow money to raise buffalo because there weren’t any records showing it was a viable business. Today though, buffalo meat prices are listed on the USDA report.
“Now the live animals we sell are a small part of the animals we raise,” he said. “It’s better for us to put them into meat because we’ve already got the website, we’ve already got everything in place, but if you had to put all that stuff in place and start over, that kind of changes.”
Fogel cites starting the retail website early on as a key to the company’s current success. At the time in 1997, he admits he didn’t realize how important it was to get online. He also trademarked the name Buffalo Gal and recently dealt with someone else using it.
“You put Buffalo Gal in the search engine and somebody else’s name comes up, it confuses your customers,” he said.
Buffalo Gal secured its place in “buffalo meat” web visits through Google ads and vigilantly maintaining the website since the beginning.
“In the beginning, I thought it was kind of a novelty or something, but now I see that without the internet, we’d be out of business,” Fogel said.
In 1988, as Fogel hauled a load of buffalo from Cody, Wyo., back to Montana, one of the calves got separated from its mother. Because of the separation the mother lost the smell and rejected the calf when they arrived back in Montana. Fogel brought the calf, Cody, into the house and raised him with his other dogs.
“He thought he was a Great Dane,” Fogel said. “He’d run with the dogs. He’d go out hunting. He’d go out when we’d go out in the pastures and he didn’t realize he was a buffalo.”
After a tough go in Montana that included flooding and grasshoppers, Fogel and Cody and about 175 head made their way back to Minnesota. Shortly after the return, Fogel saw a guy riding a buffalo at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. He decided to train Cody to be ridden.
One year at the state fair in Minnesota, Fogel found out that a movie, “Dances with Wolves,” was being filmed and the producers needed a tame buffalo.
“We called and said, ‘We’ve got a tame buffalo,’” Fogel said. “They asked if he would come on command and all that. I had no idea, but I said he could. So, we took him out there, not realizing that ‘Dances with Wolves’ was going to be such a hit.”
From there, good things started to follow. People came to the ranch to see the buffalo from the movie. In 2006, they visited the White House for the introduction of the new buffalo nickel. Then there was another movie, “Radio Flyer.” Cody turned out to be an essential piece of Buffalo Gal’s success.
“When I did the movie ‘Radio Flyer,’ I was on the set for two months at $1,000 a day,” Fogel said. “I paid off my farm, I paid off my truck. Before that, I was in a financial bind. Like I said, the banks laughed at me.