PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (AP) — A herd of about 2,400 American bison roams the fields at Three Suns Ranch, gobbling up grass and palmetto leaves, as well as citrus pulp brought in to supplement their diet.
On the 5,729-acre ranch east of Punta Gorda, about 60 miles north of Naples, there are no hormone injections or feed lots — staples of the American cattle industry.
Rather, 34-year-old Keith Mann and his crew of seven full-time employees are working hard to provide a product that most people wouldn't associate with Florida: grass-fed, U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected and locally raised bison meat. The herd is comprised of transplants from the western United States and some bison born on the property.
Restaurants and Southwest Florida residents have responded quickly to Three Suns Ranch. Less than a year after starting sales, RealMeats, the affiliated company that sells the ranch's meat, has more demand for bison than it can fill.
Mann estimated he has about a dozen commercial customers, plus people who drive from throughout Southwest Florida to the small on-ranch store.
Though it may not be on the radar for many Floridians, bison meat is increasingly popular in U.S. grocery stores and restaurant sales of bison meat grew more than 12 percent in 2013, according to a report from the National Bison Association.
Food service and retail sales reached $278.9 million, up nearly $30 million from the previous year, the association found.
The organization touts bison as a healthier alternative to beef. Its website states the meat has more iron, protein and vitamin B-12 than USDA choice beef, with less fat and fewer calories.
Sticking to a grass-fed ranching model, rather than the popular option of feeding the animals grain, gives the meat more nutritional value, Mann said.
"Grass is what they're designed to eat," he explained. "It's what their bodies are designed to consume and convert. The animals are healthier and, as a result, the meat is a healthier product. You'll have a much higher omega-3/omega-6 ratio. The omega-3s are your anti-inflammatory fats."
The animals are slaughtered and processed in the ranch's on-site, USDA-inspected plant, Mann said. It ensures that he and his employees have a hand in everything that happens to the bison, from the moment they are born or arrive at the ranch, to the time a customer buys the meat.
"We know everything about them," Mann said. "At no point in this continuum, in this process, are they out of our control, is something weird happening to them, are they being mistreated, are they being treated inhumanely. That was totally out of bounds for us, which is why we went through the trouble of building the plant, which is pretty neat."
After nearly a decade in the U.S. Army, Three Suns Ranch is Mann's way of starting over and building a life that keeps him closer to his wife and three young boys.
"I went to Afghanistan three times," he said, recalling his military days. "I got young kids now, so that was not a good lifestyle. We decided to get out and try something different."
A passion for fitness and the popular, protein-heavy "paleo" diet led Mann and his wife, Caitlin Mann, 33, to investigate where the meat they consumed came from and how it got onto their plates.
"We didn't really like the answer, so we kind of started looking into doing it ourselves and the idea got bigger and bigger," he said. "Now we're right here, sitting on a couple thousand bisons."
Three Suns Ranch acquired the property in 2012 and Mann started buying bison later that year, at a time when Western ranchers were selling herds they couldn't sustain in the face of a drought. His most recent purchase of bison was in November 2013, when he bought a few hundred head from South Dakota.
It took some trial and error, but Mann and his staff have mostly figured out how to keep bison healthy in the hot, wet Florida climate. Now they're waiting expectantly to see how many calves the herd will produce in this year's calving season, which is underway.
Mann said he likely will buy more animals this fall, but wants the herd to mostly grow naturally. He estimates the ranch can hold about 7,000 bison. Significantly increasing the herd size would allow Three Suns Ranch and RealMeats to start serving commercial customers in Fort Myers and Naples and implement an existing marketing plan for Lee and Collier counties.
He believes Naples, especially, is ripe with consumers who would be excited about his product, "folks with disposable income who care about what they're eating.
"They don't just go to Walmart and grab something wrapped in plastic and assume that's where meat comes from," he said. "The kind of people who want to come to a place like this, where they can see their animals being born, raised, treated, harvested, slaughtered, packaged and sold. You can see everything here, you know, and that's important to a lot of people. It certainly was to me, which is why we're doing it."
In addition to the bison, RealMeats also sells some USDA-inspected grass-fed beef and wild hog meat. The ranchers use dogs to hunt hogs that wander onto the ranch and also purchase hogs from people who trap them on their own properties. Wild hogs are considered a nuisance because they tear up the ground wherever they go, ruining crops and causing other damage.
The hog meat also has been popular with customers, Mann said.
Danny Strayer buys bison, wild hog and beef from RealMeats for his family, going in with friends and relatives to purchase large amounts at once.
His family likes to use the meat they purchase there to make chili and bison burgers.
The health benefits of bison and the grass-fed model caught his attention in January after he and his wife decided to abandon their vegan diet.
"It made sense for us to go out there and talk to them and ask them about their own product," said Strayer, 33, of Punta Gorda. "Once we realized what it was and what bison is and the health benefits of it, (it) was kind of a no-brainer for us."
Strayer said he believes the people at Three Suns Ranch have a view of food that "is pretty much the same thought process as my family."
That's just the kind of credibility Mann and his team are trying to build among customers.
"It's pretty neat to have total accountability of these animals, from start to finish," he said. "If you can trust us, which I think you can, that also puts out a product that you can trust, and we're real proud of that."
Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com