RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Heres another commodity where demand is running high: bison meat. Prices are at near-record levels. Thats led bison ranchers to gather in Denver, to figure out how to recruit more people into their business.
Grace Hood, of member station KUNC, reports.
GRACE HOOD: So far, consumers dont mind paying extra for the meat. Its averaging $7 per pound - up $2 from a year ago.
Unidentified Man: Bison burgers, table 31.
HOOD: Accountants Cory Vann and Reid Schellhous are having bison burgers for lunch at Teds Montana Grill in Denver.
HOOD: So how does it taste?
Mr. REID SCHELLHOUS: Its a little bit sweeter and a slightly different texture, Id say - a little bit smoother.
HOOD: For these number crunchers, $12 per burger isnt a deterrent.
Mr. CORY VANN: I mean, if it was twice as much as beef, I think I would probably stick with beef. But only a couple dollars' difference - and so its not that big of a deal.
HOOD: A recent supply shortage forced the restaurant to raise its prices on bison. But General Manager Scott Procop says so far, customer demand is holding steady.
Mr. SCOTT PROCOP (Managing Partner, Teds Montana Grill): We started prepping more of the beef, but it stayed in line still with the prices. You know, theyre willing to pay the extra price for the product.
HOOD: Bison is a niche market 92,000 head were processed in North America last year. Thats less than one days beef production in the United States. As prices continue to rise, many in the industry expect customers to push back. Thats led the bison trade association to launch a massive recruiting effort to bring more ranchers into the business.
Mr. CHANDLER MORTON (Business Owner): Watch out for the barbed wire.
HOOD: People like Chandler Morton. Hes stringing electrical fence wire, preparing grazing land for his 15 recently purchased bison.
Mr. MORTON: OK, let me stop here and take a break.
HOOD: Mortons in his mid-30s, and has a masters degree in accounting. His disdain for sitting behind a desk led him to start an animal hide tanning store, which hes now using to fund an up-start bison business.
Mr. MORTON: I think theres several years to go before we can even come close to matching the demand. So thats what exciting about it. Because theres not too many industries you can look at in 2011 and say thats whats happening.
HOOD: But it will take time for Morton to grow his herd. A female bison cant have her first calf until shes 3. Thats compared to age 2 for beef cows. It may sound like a shortcoming, but this can actually be an asset according to Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.
Mr. DAVE CARTER (Executive Director, National Bison Association): The good thing is with the higher prices, that is all going right back to the ranchers right now. And thats a great signal for ranchers to build their herds.
HOOD: While ranchers may be benefiting, processors like Rocky Mountain Natural Meats are not. President Bob Dineen started this business out of his Nissan station wagon decades ago. Today, his factory supplies meat to Whole Foods and Teds Montana Grill.
Mr. BOB DINEEN (President and CEO, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats): Weve increased sales in the 10 to 20 percent range pretty much every year - this year being on the lower end of that because of supply issues.
HOOD: Last year, the industry saw some growing pains. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats initiated its largest recall ever due to possible contamination of E. coli bacteria. Dineen says the plant tests daily for it, and maintains that growing the business means preserving the quality customers expect.
(Soundbite of diners)
HOOD: Back at Teds Montana Grill, diner Cory Vann says he probably couldnt taste the difference between beef and bison if he were blindfolded. And right now, thats part of the appeal for consumers like Vann, who also cooks the lower-fat meat at home.
Mr. VANN: Yeah, weve made like a Bolognese with bison instead of ground beef before. You know, well make burgers at home, but even taco meat you can make with bison instead.
HOOD: Just about the only culinary limit this industry has right now is dessert.
For NPR News, Im Grace Hood.