A tough year could usher in a brighter future for the bison sector

The pandemic was a big hit for bison producers but it’s also opened up new opportunities

The pandemic caused a big drop in prices here and in Europe, but it’s also seen more availability of bison meat, more people cooking it at home, and more direct marketing by bison producers.
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It’s been a tough 10 months, but there are promising new opportunities ahead for bison producers, says the organization that represents them.

“There are stormy waters at the present time, but the long-term future for the bison industry is very bright,” said Terry Kremeniuk, executive director of the Canadian Bison Association. “The pandemic and a lot of global uncertainty has created volatility not only for bison producers, but for other people involved in agriculture.”

Still, many bison producers who sell to the restaurant trade here or to European markets have been hit especially hard. Bison meat had been fetching $4.40 to $5 per pound (of hot hanging weight) in 2019. When the pandemic hit, prices plummeted below $4 and even down to $3.50 a pound at times last year.

“In Canada and in Europe, planned marketing was substantially reduced by COVID-19,” said Kremeniuk. “Fortunately, there has been some product moving into Europe. It’s important for the people in that marketplace to maintain that marketplace at some level so that when it does open up fully again, it’s easier to grow in that marketplace.”

Things were better for producers shipping south of the border where prices largely held up.

“That market has been really stable and compared to the rest of Canada, very strong,” he said.

But the pandemic has wrought changes that could help the bison sector in the years ahead, he added.

While the loss of restaurant business hurt in the short term, more people are now eating bison at home.

“During the early stages of the pandemic, when people were cleaning out the meat shelves, there was bison there as well,” said Kremeniuk. “You’re buying meat, so you might buy bison. This is what has happened.”

Not only are more people doing more cooking at home, it’s easier to find bison meat.

“Because there is fresh bison at various grocery stores, including Costco, it’s available to more people than it has ever been,” said Kremeniuk. “There’s probably more fresh bison and frozen bison available than the Canadian consumer has ever experienced.”

And as in other ag sectors, many producers have turned to direct marketing their products during the pandemic.

“People have been taking advantage of technology,” he said. “They’ve been developing websites and marketing things online, and it’s worked for many.”

Consumers have also been reaching out to farmers.

“The supply chain was really stretched at the beginning of the pandemic and one way that people thought they would try and shorten the supply chain was to contact local producers and have some measure of guarantee they would have access to meat, whether it was bison, pork or beef,” he said.

But the backlogs of beef and bison at provincially inspected abattoirs have been challenging for the industry to deal with — activity at Alberta provincial slaughter facilities increased by 30 per cent, while Saskatchewan and Manitoba saw increases of 58 per cent.

“The slaughter capacity, having the ability to slaughter animals when they need to be slaughtered is a bit of a challenge in this marketplace,” said Kremeniuk. “There is still some inventory, and people seem to be working through it.

“I expect over the next couple of months that will be less of an issue. It’s hard to say how many animals are backed up.”

It’s extremely hard to know when business will get back to normal in the restaurant and food-service sectors, he said, and so some bison producers are trying to get into the retail space, with varying degrees of success.

“The big challenge is the uncertainty with respect to COVID-19,” he said. “Is the marketplace going to be opening up in the summertime? How soon will there be a lot of confidence out there that going to a restaurant will have limited risk?”

So like the rest of society, bison producers are keen to see the fastest possible rollout of vaccinations, he said.

“The rate at which vaccines are dispensed is going to make a difference.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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