Charlie Minton released a small herd of wood bison on his farm last week, returning to Surry County a keystone species native to the area and fulfilling his dream.
“You’re either born into farming or it seems like you work your entire life to get into it,” said Minton, who falls into the latter category.
Minton, a 43-year-old Mount Airy physician who grew up in Elkin, began what would become Beulah Bison Farm with a small land purchase in his early 20s.
The land was located out almost to Lowgap, near the Edward-Franklin House and Camp Raven Knob, where Minton had worked in the 1990s.
His parents had moved to Florida and Minton wasn’t interested in following.
“I’d been living out of my backpack and wanted a piece of land to call home,” he said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
The doctor said he’s been working “almost constantly” to improve the land, which he expanded over the years to its current 200 acres.
“I hacked my house out of the wilderness,” working in his spare time from work responsibilities. “It’s almost in a sense a homestead.”
He now resides with his wife, Catherine Perkins-Minton, and their three young children.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Minton turned the focus of his farm to the wood bison more than a decade ago.
“They’re amazing animals,” said Minton, referring to his choice of livestock. “They’re not pets,” he added. “You don’t walk up to them and try to take a selfie…You don’t really hear about people from Surry County doing that,” he said, expressing confidence local residents wouldn’t try that.
Minton’s fascination with the animals runs deep. He rattled off a list of reasons of why he was drawn to bison as opposed to something more conventional, such as cattle.
He explained that the once prevalent species are native to almost all of the United States, from “pretty close to the East Coast all the way out west.”
In North Carolina, the species were native from the western regions to about Raleigh, he said.
Their numbers dwindled to a few hundred compared to 3 million, the wood bison “luckily rebounded after almost brought to extinction.”
Because the wood bison is native to these areas, and for other reasons, their upkeep is less demanding, making them a smart entry point for a beginning farmer.
Minton explained the bison’s hooves aerate the soil instead of compacting it, and they don’t water consistently from the same source, which also prevents compaction and erosion.
They have no predators, and farmers don’t have to be involved with calving.
“The only problem is worms,” which are addressed through relatively simple measures.
Minton explained that the bison’s role as a keystone species has already led to an improvement in the health of his own woods.
“With a keystone species, everything sort of falls off of it. Everything depends on it,” he said.
Demand for bison meat is on the rise, said Minton, whose primary goal is to sell the boutique meat to high-end, local restaurants but also to eventually include school tours, agrotourism and establishing conservation easements.
“It’s trying to keep one of the last bastions of wilderness,” he said. “There is so much people can learn.”
Preparing for the herd has been a “long, slow process,” Minton said, explaining that so-called improvements involved returning the land to it’s pre-development stage.
Most of the farm is wooded, (“They love the woods,” Minton said of the bison), but the mountain meadow is also a crucial feature of the landscape.
The bison were a part of the ecosystem that created those mountain meadows. “We didn’t have bulldozers 300 years ago,” he said.
To reestablish the meadows Minton has planted native grasses which he said are higher in protein, healthy for the soil and the bison.
“Native grasses need fire, elk or bison to reproduce, which is amazing in itself,” he said.
Fencing in 200 acres also created a significant task for Minton, and his farm manager, Mike Windsor.
“My dad, he helps me tremendously as well,” he said.
The six-foot high fence, which features eight strands of high-tensile wire, two of which are electrified, winds through the woods, following the contours of the hilly farm.
Western style cattle crossings, with a pipe-lined floor that hoofed animals will not cross, allow for vehicles and farm equipment to pass through.
In March, the herd of about 23 bison was placed on the farm in a five acre enclosure.
“When you get them you can’t just turn them loose,” Minton explained.
The bison were slowly introduced to their new home. About a month after their arrival, the animals enclosure was expanded to 21 acres.
Last Sunday, Minton released the bull, Roscoe, the alpha female and her calf on the full 180 acres, giving them a few days to become familiar with the territory and let the rest of the herd, which was released Wednesday, that everything is safe and fine.
“It felt great,” Minton said of the final release, the animals’ behavior an indicator of success.
“They’re perfect,” he said. “They’re calm; they’re relaxed.”
The slow integration demonstrates an overall emphasis on a “no-stress” lifestyle for the herd.
“They have a good life and that’s what we wanted,” Minton said.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4764.