Home on the range: Georgetown Farm's where the buffalo roam

If you've lived in Central Virginia long enough, the sight of cows grazing in pastures or even a loose cow might not be enough to turn your head. After all, they're practically everywhere. But a short drive out to Georgetown Farm in Free Union provides a different type of bucolic viewing experience, and one that might startle even a jaded observer of Albemarle herds.

With its red barn and sprawling fields, Georgetown looks like a regular farm heck, it smells like a regular farm, and indeed there are cattle here. But also roaming the 1,000-acre property are 100 animals that belong to another time and place: bison.

Weighing in at nearly a ton each, the woolly animals with the massively muscled shoulders and short, powerful legs are a herdsman's dream. The 97 percent fat-free meat they produce is some of the finest around, say brothers Josh, 24, and Matt Albert, 29, who have worked on the farm for most of their lives and now run the entire Free Union operation with assistance from four farm hands.

Running the farm requires brutal hours, but Josh (above) and Matt (below) Albert say they can't picture it any other way. Arriving by 5:30am to begin feeding the bison and Piedmontese cattle, the brothers generally work straight through until dark often 8:30 or 9pm in the summer months.

The Alberts' schedule is grueling: they start work around 5:30am, seven days a week, and they often don't head home until dark 8:30 or 9pm in the summer. Though much of their job is physical labor involving large, unpredictable animals, no one's ever been seriously injured on the Farm, says Matt. The boys learned safe work habits from their father, Tom Albert, who has been with the operation since 1977, one year after the Farm's inception by sometime Charlottesville resident Edgar Bronfman Sr.

Bronfman, then the top executive with Seagram, the Canadian distillery, would make history in the late '90s by smashing the myth of Swiss neutrality and gaining reparations from Swiss bankers for victims of the Holocaust. President of the World Jewish Congress, Bronfman received the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1999.

Tom Albert, now vice president of the Farm, oversees another Bronfman enterprise, Georgetown West, a 5,200-acre ranch in Oklahoma, which is home to more than 2,000 bison and another 1,000 head of cattle. Tom Albert comes back to Virginia about once a month, his sons explain, and meets with Bronfman a few times each year. Both were unavailable for this story.

Josh, 24, is now farm manager and handles the purchasing of the cattle. He says he spent about half a million dollars in 2001, and will likely spend even more this year, purchasing about 8,000 head. Most of them will go directly to Georgetown West and then on to slaughter, because, according to Josh, the Free Union operation can legally hold only 350 in its two- to three-acre feeding areas.

Matt does all the bison buying spending about $1.5 million on several thousand new animals annually. Altogether, Josh says, Georgetown slaughters more than 10,000 head of bison and cattle each year, and he expects the number to rise in coming years.

But it's not just the ever-increasing numbers that show how far Georgetown has come from its traditional Hereford cattle beginnings. In addition to the bison, which have been a part of Georgetown since 1992, the Farm now focuses on an exotic, little-known breed of cattle.

In the early '90s, Bronfman and Tom Albert discovered the Italian Piedmontese breed, a freakishly muscular animal that, because of a particular gene, is a source of tender, low fat beef. Today, the Free Union Farm is home to 35 full-blood Piedmontese, which are generally used for breeding, and another 350 animals with a minimum of 50 percent "Pied" blood to guarantee the characteristics of the breed.

Adrian, a full blood Piedmontese, has nothing to fear at Georgetown Farm. "We'll never kill that cow," Josh Albert promises. Albert says the Farm paid over $20,000 for her, and that she could now be worth $40,000. "But she's doubled or tripled that cost from bulls she's produced," he explains. Piedmontese bulls sell for around $2,500.

Though the Piedmontese bulls and cows appear to be on steroids, the Alberts insist that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, none of the animals on the farm neither bison nor cattle are given hormones or antibiotics. If an animal requires antibiotic treatment, it cannot be sold under the Georgetown labels, Josh explains, and is instead sold to less fastidious operations.

In addition, both the cattle and the bison are primarily grass-fed, roaming freely through pastures for approximately two years. Then, as slaughter time approaches, the cattle are moved to the barn area and grain-fed in the feeding areas for several weeks. (Josh estimates that three to five percent of the Pied mixes spend several months this way, a fact which prevents Georgetown from marketing any of its beef as "free range.")

Slaughtering happens at Georgetown's own plants– including one in nearby Madison County. Josh says the facilities are USDA-inspected and surpass federal requirements for cleanliness.

That doesn't satisfy People for the Ethicial Treatment of Animals, whose Norfolk-based research assistant, Cem Akin, believes slaughterhouses "are all places that animals experience pain and suffering."

Josh, however, insists that Georgetown's process is as humane as possible. The cattle and bison are stunned with a blow to the skull, and Josh says they feel no pain. "The animals never see it coming," he says.

Despite PETA's opinions, meat eaters remain the majority, and upscale local restaurants including Mono Loco, Starr Hill, Hamiltons', Blue Light Grill, and Keswick Hall have followed The White House's lead in serving Georgetown products. Local grocery stores offering both the Georgetown Farm Pure Bison and Silver Beef labels include Foods of All Nations, Kroger, Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Rebecca's, and C'ville Market.

But if the meats aren't yet fully famous, they may be soon. In October, Georgetown Farm will open its first retail store: Georgetown Farm Market, in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center on 29 North.

Not surprisingly, the 4,000-square-foot Market will offer meat products, but it will also launch Georgetown into the world of prepared food, including catering, picnics, and deli sandwiches.

Josh says they've snared the Central Virginia-based "Bison Chef," Carter Gooding, a Culinary Institute of America grad who has dedicated his career to the preparation of bison (check his website, bisonchef.com).

So to you meat lovers out there, bon appetit.

Or, perhaps more apropos, Bison appetit.