PULLING HIS PICKUP truck alongside a 60-foot-long, 5-foot-wide trough filled with yellowish-brown grain, Gary Schuler cracks a small smile and softly says, "I call it my golden feedbowl."
Given that a few moments later he refers to a nearby mound of manure as "black gold" and a manure spreader he once used to distribute vegetable trimmings to his grazing herds as a "salad shooter," it's clear that Schuler has a penchant for wryly colorful euphemisms. But the grain filling that mammoth trough is something special, one stop on a cyclic chain that Schuler refers to as "beer, barley and buffalo."
At this stage on its journey, the grain is being used as feed for the herd of bison that Schuler raises at his Hillside Farms in Telford, less than 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. Started in 1992, the herd has grown from seven heifer calves to more than 50 adult bison, with 18 calves born this spring and roughly 10 more expected soon. "This year is going to be our biggest calf crop ever," Schuler says. "It's the healthiest the herd has ever been."
He credits that heartiness in part to the grain that he introduced into the bisons' diet about a year ago, which comes from an unexpected source: Yards Brewing Company on North Delaware Avenue.
The feed begins life as malted barley, one of the chief ingredients in beer. After being crushed to exacting specifications and mashed in hot water, converting its starches to sugars, the barley is essentially filtered out from the resulting liquid, leaving behind cellulose material that is indigestible to humans but an integral part of the bison's diet.
"You feel good about it," says Yards president Tom Kehoe. "Even though it's just a buffalo eating it, it's eating Yards grain."
A word about nomenclature: "Buffalo" tends to get used to describe the animals and the meat produce at Hillside Farms and similar farms across the country. What is referred to as buffalo in this country, however, is actually the American bison, no relation to the actual buffalo that roams Africa and Asia.
The circle is closed when Schuler returns to Yards with meat produced by the bison fed on the brewery's grain, which is then served in Yards' tasting room as bison chili or spicy buffalo sausage. "I think it made our chili excellent," enthuses Kehoe. "I never knew why chili is greasy a lot of the time, but it's because of all the fat content in the meat. There's hardly any fat content in buffalo, so all the tomato and everything else that's in there comes out."
Schuler sells his buffalo meat (wrong or not, that's what it ends up being called) at a small store at the farm which is open on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, but most of the meat from Hillside's animals ends up at his nearby restaurant, Rising Sun Inn. "I can't even keep up with all the steaks that people want to eat," Schuler laments, shaking his head at the massive animals staring at his truck.
"There's only 10 pounds of filet mignon in that whole 1,000-pound animal, and that's the best piece of meat. I end up having to buy meat in from Rapid City, S.D."
Schuler fell into the buffalo business almost by accident. Hillside once belonged to his wife B.J.'s parents, who raised Black Angus cattle, crops and chickens for eggs on the 50-acre farm until her father died in 1988. Her mother was set to sell the property to a developer who wanted to transform it into a subdivision, but when the deal fell through the Schulers stepped in and purchased the farm in 1990. It is now permanently preserved under the Montgomery County Farmland Preservation Program.
A graduate of Delaware Valley College, where he majored in ornamental horticulture, Schuler planned to use the farm for his landscaping business, but soon found it less than ideal. "I lined out 2,000 evergreen trees and lost almost all of them," he recalls. "The grass grew so fast I couldn't keep up with that and do landscaping too, and during the winter the field mice would eat the bark and kill them. So I gave up and the buffalo ate the rest."
Needing to find a new use for the land, Schuler read about buffalo and visited a farmer with a small herd near Doylestown. He bought his initial seven heifers in 1992 (three of which are still among the herd) and his first bull a year later. "I always wanted to be in the food industry," he says. "Now, people's awareness is really picking up of how healthy buffalo is, because they're raised without any chemicals involved. It's all natural grazing, so you don't get the hormones, you don't get the antibiotics. It's just grass and barley to meat."
In addition to the bison, B.J. Schuler also raises Paso Fino horses, a small Spanish breed known for its light gait, and the couple also breeds Greater Swiss mountain dogs to sell as pets (although an overprotective mother has been known to take a chunk out of a visiting journalist's sleeve when he gets too close to her puppies).
The arrangement with Yards began after a steep learning curve in trying to keep the bison fed beyond their primary source, the grass or hay they graze on. For several years, Schuler's so-called "salad shooter" disbursed vegetable trimmings that he picked up from a local produce shop. "They liked it and ate a lot, but the trouble was flies and pinkeye," he says. "The bacteria on the stuff they didn't eat would attract the flies, who then went to their eyes. I had calves running around blind. It got expensive and laborious."
Alerted to an advertisement that Iron Hill Breweries, the local chain of brewpubs, was looking for someone to take their spent grain, Schuler began frequenting small breweries, filling a trash can at a time. He contacted Yards shortly after the expanding brewery moved into its current location in early 2008.
Though he hauls away five tons of grain every four or five days, Schuler is only one of two farmers who benefit from Yards' activity.
The brewery uses almost 50,000 pounds of grain every two weeks, according to Kehoe. Additional grain is used by Wild Flour Bakery in the bread served at Yards' tasting room, and even by a local woman who picks up an occasional bucket's worth for use in her home garden.
While every brewery makes some arrangement for its spent grain, the circular arrangement with Kehoe fits neatly into a larger environmental consciousness at Yards, which also collects and reuses water whenever possible during the brewing process, uses wind credits to become 100 percent wind-powered, and built its tasting room almost entirely from reclaimed furniture, fixtures and equipment.
Schuler, like most farmers, is also never one to waste anything. The parts of the bison that don't end up as buffalo meat in his restaurant or store are also on sale - painted skulls, hides, and shoulder mounts are available in the gift shop.