By Lorrie Baumann
When Jonathan Sepp left the Air Force after completing his obligation to Uncle Sam for his U.S. Air Force Academy college education, he rediscovered a dream that had been with him since he first saw bison grazing on South Dakota rangeland during a cross-country vacation trip with his parents. “That animal in particular had a magnetic draw,” he says. “After my commitment was done, I could have stayed in the Air Force, but it’s not what I wanted to do.”
That dream is now being realized as a Montana bison ranch and a brand of bison jerky that he launched in July with a cross-country tour of his own, this time pulling an Airstream trailer that he’s decked out as a kind of tiny museum on wheels. The museum is a small series of multimedia exhibits that explain how bison help regenerate a landscape by trampling down encroaching sagebrush, leaving behind hoof prints that act as small catchment basins that trap small amounts of moisture to water the seeds of the surrounding grasses. Since no museum is really complete without a gift shop, at the end of his line of exhibits, there’s a rack on which he’s offering packages of his Roam Free bison jerky for sale.
While the bison jerky is brand new, the Roam Free ranch, situated on 240 acres on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, is nearly four years old. “The only place we could afford to start was on the reservation and in a gulch,” he says.
Even though he recognized that the scrubby, overgrazed land he could afford wasn’t the best, he didn’t start out knowing much about how to fix that. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just ground. You just turn the animals out,’” he says. He didn’t know how to look at grass; he didn’t know much about water; but he figured out in a hurry that he’d better learn or he wasn’t going to last. “Weed education is where I started,” he says.
He started talking to experts in bioregenerative agriculture – the people who could tell him how to take an overgrazed piece of grassland and increase its productivity. “It’s a science. It really is a science,” he says. “We run into a problem and talk to experts, and they help us fix that – and you get better next year.”
The small successes he’s having on his own ranch made him passionate about sharing what he’s learning with others. Spreading the word is key to ensuring that the market for bison meat stays strong, he believes. The roaming museum in the Airstream is the result of that kind of thinking. It’s been nine months in development. “There has to be education in a simple context, and you have to educate people to understand what they’re eating and why it’s healthier,” Sepp says. “We took every cent we had in the ranch to do this.”
The Roam Free jerky that’s for sale at the end of the row of exhibits is offered in four flavors: Wood-Fired Pizza, Original, Thai Chili Ginger and Moroccan Heat. Another two flavors, Sweet Berry BBQ and Morning Maple, are coming soon. The jerky is made from 100 percent bison meat and organic flavoring ingredients. There’s no artificial nitrates, and it’s sugar free, gluten free and carbohydrate free. “Whether you’re diabetic or just looking for ways to be healthier, we wanted to cater to that with our brand,” Sepp says. A package, which is two servings, provides 24 grams of protein.
The jerky is produced in a family-owned processing facility that’s local to the ranch. It’s USDA-certified under the state of Montana, so the jerky can be sold anywhere in the U.S.
In the fourth quarter of this year, the line will be extended with varieties fortified with medium-chain triglycerides derived from coconut, to appeal to Paleo eaters who are working on their healthy fat intake. The new MCT varieties will be offered in each of the six flavors.
For more information, email email@example.com, which will reach Sepp whether he’s home on the range or out on the road. “We would love to distribute outside of driving in a trailer,” he says. “But if we don’t get there, we’re not going to be upset.”