Where the Buffalo Roam
The Farmhouse at Sanders Mill
When most of us picture a home where buffalo roam, our minds go to a huge ranch far out on the Great Plains of the American West, not a woodsy farm just outside the city limits of Greensboro, Georgia. And we certainly don’t imagine that very same farm would be available on Expedia and Booking.com for tourists to rent.
But if you cruise down Highway 15 South in Greensboro and turn onto Bowden Pond Road, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Visitors who wake up in the turn-of-the-century Farmhouse at Sanders Mill are likely to be greeted by a herd of bison passing by their bedroom window.
The farm’s owner, Andrew John Rodriguez, wasn’t intending to open a bed and breakfast when he bought the 115-acre property in 2017, but he quickly learned that bison attract attention.
Rodriguez, who had dreamed of owning his own farm since he was a teenager and long ago decided on bison as his animal of choice, purchased his 60-head herd from the Utah State Parks system in 2017.
Rodriguez picked bison because they largely take care of themselves. As long as they have good quality hay and grass and a steady water supply, they like to be left alone. They don’t have many predators, and if a coyote or other threat appears, they form an outward-facing circle around their young to fight off the attacker.
“Bison are very tough animals,” he said. “It’s great for a starting farmer because you can make a lot of mistakes, and they’re so resilient, they’ll bounce back.”
His intent was to produce bison jerky, a niche health food popular with keto dieters and bodybuilders that is quickly becoming mainstream. But soon after the animals arrived in Greene County, he began receiving calls from would-be visitors curious what a bison looks like up close.
Bison are rare in the southeast, and the closest operation similar in size to Rodriguez’s herd is located in Asheville, North Carolina. At first, the visitors were local, but then they started coming from out of state. When he realized folks were willing to drive from Florida, Alabama and Tennessee to see his animals, Rodriguez decided to capitalize on this interest and open a bed and breakfast.
The two-bedroom farmhouse is a classic, built in the late 1800s. From the high ceilings and original pine hardwood flooring to the cheerful window over the kitchen sink, the home is steeped in history, and stepping through the creaky front door feels like stepping back in time.
Rodriguez says he had renters in the farmhouse just about every weekend over the summer. It has become so popular that he barely has enough time to clean and do laundry between guests. He’s now had guests from all over the world, including Germany, France and Spain.
And ever since opening up the B&B, he’s realized his farm holds the potential to become a major tourist destination for the area.
Firstly, Rodriguez wants to expand the rental business to include a wedding and corporate event space.
Located down a hill behind the farmhouse is an old commercial grist mill that has long since fallen into disrepair. A mere shell of the mill’s huge water wheel—which was mostly dismantled in the 1940s so its steel could be used for the war effort—leans up against a tree in front of the babbling brook and hollow building that make up the mill’s ruins.
Rodriguez wants to get that water wheel turning again and build a reception hall with a long deck overlooking the wheel and creek. He imagines a rustic space, large enough for about 250 people, where guests can watch new millstones grind corn and grain behind a bar serving whiskey from the distillery he’d love to open one day.
A rose garden will grace the hillside in front of the house, and a seasonal vegetable and herb garden will provide B&B guests and wedding caterers with the freshest ingredients they could hope for.
“There will be something to play to all the different senses,” he said.
Visitors to his farm can admire the bison from afar, but Rodriguez doesn’t encourage attempts to touch the huge bovine.
“These are wild animals,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll get close to me, especially when I feed them treats, but in general, it’s not very smart.”
The smallest bison weighs over 1,200 pounds, and the largest males weigh close to a ton and can run up to 45 miles per hour. Therefore, the entire farm is protected by high-tensile steel fencing with a strength of 200,000 pounds per square inch.
“I’ve run into this with my F-250 truck, and it won’t go through that fence,” Rodriguez said. “It pushes back.”
Right now, Rodriguez only offers hayrides to friends and family, but he expects to expand that attraction also as the farm receives more visitors.
In addition to the event space, Rodriguez wants to establish a nature preserve open to campers, hunters and fisherman. He has installed wood duck boxes along the bodies of water on his land and is rehabilitating the property’s pastures both for his bison herd and to encourage growth in the local deer population.
“The more I improve this land, the better it will be for the animals and the more their health will improve,” he said.
Each year in the fall, he stocks the stream with trophy-sized trout in order to bring catch-and-release charity fishing tournaments to his property and create a trout-fishing destination, a rarity for Middle Georgia.
An old hunting cabin he found on the property inspired him to offer visitors a “glamping” experience. In addition to building several hunting cabins that will be located across the property, he plans to install a few classic silver Airstream RVs for campers to stay in.
Overall, Rodriguez said, he wants the farm to be self-sustainable. All of the water for the farmhouse’s plumbing comes from a well on the property, and he’s in the process of installing solar panels so the farm can run entirely on renewable energy.
Conservation is close to his heart because it wasn’t that long ago that bison almost went extinct in North America. Restoration efforts have brought the population back to stability, with roughly 450,000 American bison living across the continent, but the species is still considered “near threatened.”
Some of that preservation is thanks to private farmers like Rodriguez who have just recently begun farming bison for their meat. Bison meat has grown in popularity since the 1990s as a healthier alternative to beef. Many people who are incapable of digesting beef properly turn to bison for their burger fix, and bison meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, yet higher in protein.
Rodriguez says he doesn’t see himself ever going back to eating beef again.
In the midst of his tourism venture, the bison farmer certainly hasn’t forgotten about the original jerky business. He hopes to glean more customers by taking the enterprise online and setting it up in a subscription-based format where members receive jerky deliveries on a regular basis.
Although he’s excited to bring visitors to the area and establish himself as a premiere nature attraction, his favorite pasttime is still just sitting out in the pasture he calls the Big Field for hours on end and watching the bison munch away on their favorite snack, Bermuda grass hay.
“All I can hope to do is encourage tourism here at the lake area, encourage sustainable tourism, encourage conservationism and teach people how to take care of animals,” he said, looking fondly out over the herd as the sun dipped below the horizon.
“You know, if we can do this with an animal, with a species that was almost extinct, we can do this with a lot of different species that are in danger of going extinct. So all I hope to do is teach people, and encourage people to get into the business, to raise healthy meat, and, you know, to do something different.”
This article and photos by Emily McClure appeared in the Nov/Dec 2019 issue of Lakelife.