By Stan Maddux
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It was love at first sight once an Indiana man laid eyes on a herd of bison for the first time.
The former drummer in a rock band had no idea then he would become a rancher, let alone the owner of the largest bison herds in the state.
Zach Martin is majority owner of Red Frazier Bison, one of the farms to be featured during the Indiana State Fair, which runs July 29-Aug. 21.
Martin said he was about 20 years old and doing construction work at a farm with a small herd of bison near Indianapolis when he became captivated by the animals.
“I found myself just staring at them, watching them and being incredibly intrigued by all of the different dynamics with the herd, their movements, their motions and the way they communicate,” he said.
Martin, while growing up, helped his father and grandfather at their small farms but had never raised livestock.
He continued with his construction business and traveled from Texas to New York in his rock band until driven, several years later, to start his own herd of bison in Greene County.
Martin, now 39, said he learned quickly how to raise bison, mostly from other ranchers, and market the meat.
The ranch, named after Martin’s grandfather and best friend, Lenville “Red” Frazier, has since grown from a herd of eight to more than 150 head of bison on 320 acres.
“I’ve just been humping away and building it ever since,” he said. Martin is also president of the Illinois Indiana Bison Association.
He takes his bison in an upgraded cattle trailer pulled by a pick-up truck to a USDA-inspected plant two hours away for processing. The meat is sold at his retail store in Bloomington, about 20 miles east of the ranch, and to restaurants.
Everything from ground beef, steaks, filets and roasts from his bison are also offered at various butcher shops, farmers markets and online at Indianabison.com.
“That’s our main focus on how we do things as far as the sales are concerned,” he said.
Bison is also on the menu of his mobile food truck, usually parked at large events to reach people who have never eaten it before in hopes they become customers of his meat.
His Bison Rangoon dish is a past winner of the Taste of the Indiana State Fair competition and his Bison Cheese Steak Eggroll is a previous runner up.
“We got different recipes we like to make but it’s all based on bison,” he said.
Even the hides, organs, skulls and marrow bones are sold locally. “We try to harvest and utilize everything we can,” Martin said.
He and longtime friends, Jennifer Karnes and Marc Huffman, are partners in the operation.
Karnes and Huffman were not musicians but traveled with Martin and his rock band as road managers, helping with concert bookings and other things like sound.
Karnes was also an office manager at his construction firm while Huffman ran a mowing crew in the landscaping division of his construction business.
Martin said he wants to keep growing the farm but can’t right now because of processing limitations he hopes to overcome with an in-house plant in the next six months or so. “We’re pretty excited if I can pull that off,” he said.
Martin said he switched career paths out of boredom and a desire to return to his roots in farming, where he could build and fix things for himself.
The idea for raising bison didn’t surface right away until he remembered the first herd he saw and discovered there was a market for the meat in Indiana, despite the naysayers.
Part of the market is driven by people wanting less fat in their diet. Bison is much leaner than traditional beef. Martin said Bison also contains more protein and iron than beef. “It’s really an ideal red meat,” he said.
Seventeen other farms were also chosen for this year’s Featured Farmers program, now in its seventh year.
According to state fair officials, the program is designed to put a face on Hoosier agriculture by connecting consumers with fellow Hoosiers growing the food they eat. Featured farmers interact with fairgoers about things like how they grow they crops.
Martin said he’s honored to be a featured farmer but isn’t sure exactly what he’ll talk about yet. He does want people to know that becoming a farmer is possible even for a beginner taking a very unconventional path like himself.
“You don’t have to inherit great, great granddaddy’s farm to be a farmer. You just have to bust your ass,” he said.