Esko bison farmer talks tools of the trade
“If there’s any species that has every right not to trust anyone, it’s the buffalo," Don Solwold said. "That’s probably what draws me to them. They’re a noble animal."
Don Solwold hitched his boot onto his fence before climbing up and over and landing on the same side as his bison herd. Several of the enormous animals, also known as American buffalo, drew near.
Rowdy, Solwold’s bull, began making a distinct sound. “He’s purring,” said Solwold, 88.
The Esko man raises and sells the animals through his business, Quartermaster Buffalo.
And while he’s been at it for 47 years, he maintained a humble perspective.
“Buffalos got along for hundreds of thousands of years before I came long, so they don’t need me,” he said.
At most, Solwold kept 90 at a time on his 100 acres. Today, he has 19, and eight calves.
“He’s very attached to them. He never wants to be without them,” said Soldwold’s daughter, Lori Franklin, of Duluth.
Solwold lives on the homestead alone, but he receives help from friends and family.
“He’s out there every day. We call him ‘the buffalo whisperer,’” said Julie Solwold, who makes regular trips from her Los Angeles home to help on her dad’s farm.
That day, she cleared grass, twigs and alderbrush under their 4 miles of fencing.
“It’s a matter of making sure everything's running smoothly and safely and that dad doesn’t feel like he’s doing it himself,” she said.
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Don Solwold grew up in western Minnesota. During his service in the military, he moved his family from Montana to Esko in 1973. He’d been raising bison for 20 years, but bought the 100 acres with the intention of expanding.
Solwold anticipated needing to head west to purchase bison, but was pleasantly surprised the farthest he had to travel was 2 miles down the road to the Buffalo House.
Starting out, he read all he could find, but there wasn’t much out there on the subject of raising the animal. But, he grew up in a farming community and leaned on his experience with cattle. “They responded to my learning curve, they survived,” Solwold said.
And so has he.
Solwold has been charged once from his herd and once from another raiser’s herd.
“She didn’t get me with the horn. It was the closest I got,” he said, recalling the incident.
Bison are easy to read. Their tails go up when they sense danger. They won’t charge unless they feel threatened or cornered and they’re trying to get away. If you give them an avenue out, they’ll take it, he said.
As a safety measure, Solwold will carry a stick with him. They’ll do anything to protect their eyes, so if need be, striking under the horn will cause them to turn their heads, he said.
Other fun facts:
Bison aren’t fond of alfalfa or clover; and they can smell molasses a mile away.
Their fur is thick, and it traps a lot of air, which allows them to handle 40 below zero temperatures.
Bison don’t like to be petted, and a touch on the head is an act of aggression. Unless you’re Solwold and Rowdy. “That’s because of the relationship. Essentially, I was his mother,” Solwold said.
Standing in his kitchen, Solwold laid pictures of the now 1,800-pound animal on the island.
“This is the bull when he was a week old, 9 years ago. This is him when he was 5 years old,” Solwold said with a smile.
“You’re taken into the confidence of this big animal that doesn’t owe you anything. … I can go in there with him and I can hug him and he doesn’t object to that. It’s an experience I haven’t had with any other animal.”
Solwold helped launch the Minnesota Bison Association in 1993; he processed and sold meat for 30 years before stopping in 2016.
Duluth Grill was among the local businesses to purchase from Solwold.
At the time, there was much criticism on how beef was processed, so they added a bison burger to their menu, recalled Tom Hanson, co-owner of Duluth Grill, Corktown Deli and Brews and OMC Smokehouse.
Bison was about 30% of their hamburger sales. Adventurous folks were excited to try it, and they were able to boost some sales for a lot of smaller farmers, Hanson recalled.
Of Solwold, Hanson said: “I knew him in his late 70s. He’d drive up in his truck, and he’d be the first guy loading cases in.
“When you deal with people locally, you’re crossing all political lines. It keeps the socioeconomic community alive, where everybody has different thoughts and beliefs, and it just brings people working together,” Hanson said.
Asked about the business name, Solwold said in the military, the quartermaster officer provides supplies and support to soldiers.
“I discovered that teaching aircrews is the same as teaching buffalos,” he said.
After serving for 37 years, Solwold retired as an Air Force colonel.
Solwold will be 89 in February. He reflected on raising these animals for nearly half his life.
“I raise them because it’s addictive, and I’ll raise them until the day I die,” he said.
“If there’s any species that has every right not to trust anyone, it’s the buffalo. That’s probably what draws me to them. They’re a noble animal.
“We probably owe the buffalos something for how we treated them.”
Family affair: Don Solwold's daughter Lori Franklin is among his five daughters who pitch in on the 100 acres. Read about Franklin's above-the-garage painting studio, which published in the Dec. 4 News Tribune.