University News

Where buffalo roam

How a UNC alumnus came to raise buffalo on a 200-year-old family farm in Person County, N.C.

Jack Pleasant walking near buffalo
Before Jack Pleasant began buffalo farming, he earned two degrees at Carolina, served on faculty and pioneered the home-health industry through a successful company of his own.

For Jack Pleasant, memories from a 1964 trip to New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch came stampeding back on a return trip in 1995.

Not sunrises or rugged terrain or even scenic vistas.

Just buffalo. Steaks, to be exact.

That’s how the UNC alumnus began his move from owner of a successful home health agency to buffalo farmer.

In 1995, the former faculty member in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and holder of two degrees from UNC, decided for the first time in 13 years to take more than a week off for vacation.

Pleasant spent that vacation with his son Adrian, then 15, backpacking at Philmont for three weeks.  “I had done the same thing in 1964 and that was the first time I’d seen buffalo,” Pleasant said. “On the cross-country bus trip back home the bus driver chided us all the way about how for 11 days we had eaten trail food while he ate buffalo steaks and stayed in a hotel.”

When Pleasant saw buffalo again, he realized that he’d never tried one of the steaks mentioned by that braggart bus driver.

He did, and the bison was tasty. His mental wheels began whirring as it just so happened that he was weighing options for farmland that had been in his family for 200 years.

A year later, some unusual market conditions prompted Pleasant to sell MedVisit, his home health agency that had grown to eight locations across the state. The farm was calling.

260 acres of rolling hills

The farm is on 260 acres of rolling hills in the Bushy Fork community of Person County, N.C., about seven miles southwest of Roxboro, The land came from both sides of Pleasant’s family tree.

“I was raised in Burlington, so I was close enough to spend plenty of time with my grandparents on what were primarily tobacco farms,” Pleasant remembers.  “On my mother’s side, that farm also was a dairy farm from the 1930’s until the 1960’s.”

He inherited the first parts of the farm in 1981 when his maternal grandmother died, and eventually bought other sections from relatives over the years.

With the farm’s future on his mind, Pleasant was driving near Roanoke, Va., in 1996 and noticed a billboard advertisement for the “Festival for the Buffalo” in northern Virginia.

“I went up there, and they were charging five bucks to attend, selling buffalo burgers, and there were Native American dancers, and about $120,000 worth of animals were sold at auction.  I thought ‘This is kind of interesting.’  So, I started looking into it.”

He soon decided to sell MedVisit.  After a few months of planning and evaluation, Pleasant spent about two years putting up fencing and building corrals. He also visited other buffalo operations to see how they did things.

“What attracted me more than the animal husbandry was the nutritional profile of bison.  Physicians advise us not to eat red meat, but here was a healthy red meat,” said Pleasant. “I made the decision to call it buffalo when talking about the animal and bison when talking about the meat. The word ‘bison’ is technical. ‘Buffalo’ is what Lewis and Clark saw.”

He bought his first eight buffalo, all calves, in 2001.  Today, Pleasants and his wife, Sandy, live at the end of a dirt road on Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm, where a herd of 115 animals roams.

“The product is bison meat,” Pleasant says.

Traveling in the BuffMobile

Traveling in their BuffMobile, as the farm’s delivery vehicle is known, the Pleasants sell a variety of products – steaks, roast, burgers, jerky and more – through primarily retail sales at the Durham Farmers Market, Carrboro Farmers Market and Western Wake Farmers market.  They also sell bison through the farm’s website and at the farm.

During an area farm tour in spring 2013, folks waited sixty-deep to ride the farm’s “covered wagon” out to a pasture to see the state’s second-largest herd from a safe distance. Even from 40 feet away, the buffalo are huge.  Pleasant says that a prime animal can weigh between 900 and 1100 pounds when slaughtered.  Matkins Meats in nearby Burlington and Reidsville processes the meat.

Bison is usually served at events on the farm, on which a small lake surrounds a gazebo jutting over the water.  The gazebo can accommodate 110-plus people, with catering from an adjacent double-grill kitchen.  Pleasant says he also wants the farm to be a destination for tourists and groups interested in buffalo.

A business based in the food chain was quite a career shift for the 62-year-old Pleasant, but he’s never shied away from a challenge and hard work.

He worked throughout his undergraduate days before UNC’s School of Public Health hired him as a graduate student to oversee some graduate field teams.  He worked in rural health, organizing services by doctors, dentists and home health providers.  Pleasant says that the program to serve the Greene County town of Snow Hill was the first federally funded program of its kind in the country.

After graduate school, he was appointed a clinical instructor and was on faculty until 1983.

“One of the things we did in Snow Hill was creating a home health agency that became pretty successful.  In 1983, we started MedVisit and the focus was rural communities.  It began in Henderson and had eight offices in the state when we sold it.   We had private nursing, support staff and hospice, all for people in rural communities without access to the care.

“In my UNC experience, particularly with the public health pieces there was a heavy emphasis on community involvement and service.  UNC has always been about service.  I came along in a time when people didn’t know what home health was, and we were able to market ourselves to doctors in the area and develop relationships with Duke and UNC.  We provided care where others didn’t. In fact, we were one of the first agencies to treat an AIDS patient when others wouldn’t.”

While at UNC and early on in the MedVisit days, he started a family.  A son, Adrian Moore-Pleasant, earned a law degree from UNC in 2005 after attending Amherst. He died at age 30 in 2010.  A daughter, Emily Moore-Pleasant, received a BSBA from UNC in 2006 and works for Bell Partners in Greensboro.

Pleasant’s research shows that historical documents indicate the presence of buffalo in the Person County area as far back at 1728.

Pleasant’s worked throughout his life, from bussing tables at the Carolina Inn to work-study to graduate school traineeships to overseeing a ground-breaking healthcare business, and he is not ready to be put out to pasture yet.

Not as long as there are buffalo on the farm.