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Buffaloed out of retirement

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Entrepreneur Dennis Tuel has had buffalo on the brain since he was a kid. But it took until the 67-year-old Fergus Falls man reached retirement age for him to develop that lifelong curiosity into a hobby, a business and a p...

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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- Entrepreneur Dennis Tuel has had buffalo on the brain since he was a kid.

But it took until the 67-year-old Fergus Falls man reached retirement age for him to develop that lifelong curiosity into a hobby, a business and a passion.

Tuel purchased four buffalo in 1991 and began raising them as a hobby. A few years later, the founder of ShoreMaster and eight other successful businesses became "bored stiff" with retirement and founded Buffalo Pass Ranch.

Today the 960-acre ranch north of Fergus Falls is the largest producer of buffalo in Minnesota and a full-time job for Tuel's daughter and son-in-law.

Tuel recalls visiting Itasca State Park with his family during his childhood. "There they had a scroungy looking old bull," he said.

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He later researched buffalo for school and again while he was in college. That interest, and a desire to work with animals, stuck with him.

Tuel became serious about making buffalo a business in about 1994 and purchased a couple thousand dollars worth of buffalo, he said. As land became available 11 miles north of Fergus Falls, Tuel purchased the property and brought daughter and son-in-law Tricia and Mike Vertrone into the business.

Initially the ranch produced breeding stock. But as the value of breeding stock decreased, Tuel decided to try selling buffalo meat, which had a higher demand.

He started by distributing meat to two freezers in friends' grocery stores. Tuel continued to expand and purchased freezers by the semi-load.

Under the label Buffalo Meat Inc., the ranch now distributes meat to 200 grocery stores in the Midwest.

"It's growing as fast as we are able to put freezers into the stores and stock them," Tuel said.

Burgers are the most popular buffalo item, although country sausage and bratwurst also were good sellers during the summer, Tuel said. Other products include buffalo roast, buffalo steak and different varieties of jerky.

The ranch's biggest customer is the Big Chief Truck Stop just outside of Fergus Falls. With the motto "Home of the Bison Burger," Tuel said the truck stop sells more buffalo burgers than it does beef.

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Tuel purchased Big Chief Truck Stop seven years ago. Now owned by his son-in-law Ray Rogers, the truck stop is the only restaurant to which Buffalo Pass Ranch distributes.

The Fergus Falls Sunmart store is one of the ranch's distributors. Tyler Monson, assistant meat manager, said ground patties are more popular, though buffalo meat isn't a big seller. Bison roast and steak are higher priced, about twice the cost of beef, Monson said.

Bison is healthier than beef, helping increase its popularity, Tuel said. The ranch's Web site, www.buffalopassranch.com , provides a nutrition comparison for 100-gram portions of meat:

E Buffalo roast has 143 calories, 2.4 grams of fat and 28 grams of protein.

E Beef roast has 241 calories, 14 grams of fat and 27 grams of protein.

E Skinless chicken breast has 173 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 31 grams of protein.

E Chicken breast with the skin has 197 calories, 7.2 grams of fat and 30 grams of protein.

Tuel eats bison meat every day. His usual order at the truck stop is a half-pound bunless buffalo burger, he said.

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But his diet isn't the only daily encounter with buffalo.

Not far from the truck stop, Tuel's home on Big Chief Road is decorated with buffalo statues, pictures, lamps, coasters and even some floor tiles.

Tuel's wife, Marsha, wearing a buffalo T-shirt and pin, said, "Wherever you look, you're going to find a buffalo."

Marsha Tuel said she's had fun getting into buffalo along with her husband. She used to have names for their buffalo before they got too many to remember.

"People think I'm nuts because I think my buffalo are handsome and beautiful," she said. "But I do. They're majestic."

At one time the Tuels had a bottle-fed buffalo calf that was allowed to jump into bed with them. They named it BB, which stands for beautiful buffalo or buffalo brat "depending on if she's good or bad," Marsha Tuel said.

Dennis Tuel takes care of 55 buffalo on property near his home. The rest of the company's 600 buffalo are at the ranch north of Fergus Falls. Buffalo Pass Ranch is at full capacity unless adjacent land becomes for sale, Tuel said.

His daughter Tricia Vertrone said she doesn't think her dad expected his buffalo business to expand as much as it has.

Vertrone and her husband, Mike, pursued the business with Tuel because raising a family on a farm appealed to them.

But farm life on a buffalo ranch has proven to be more of a novelty than a traditional farm. Last year 120 kids from area schools toured the ranch, Vertrone said.

Tuel said he plans to stay with the buffalo business as long as it continues growing.

"I don't think retirement is going to be a word I'm going to use," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590

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