There was a clear sense of optimism in the air as producers gathered from across the province to attend the annual meeting of the Bison Producers of Alberta (BPA). It was also a gathering of the survivors as the bison market is pulling itself out of 10-year market slump.
BPA office manager Linda Sautner said that attendance at this year’s annual meeting was double if not triple of previous years. Longtime producer Tom Cliff of Pigeon Lake summed up the reason. “Producers had no money to go to meetings. It was costing producers more money to market their bison than the prices they were getting. Some were just shooting them.”
In 1998 bison producers were enjoying the highest prices ever seen in their industry. But it was a breeding stock market and it crashed as the market became saturated. Then producers were struck by the double calamity of losing a major bison packer in Edmonton to a fire, and BSE, which closed exports to the U. S., where officials lumped in bison with cattle in the border restrictions, even though there was no scientific connection of bison to BSE.
Since then bison markets have slowly recovered as border restrictions eased and new bison packers and marketers entered the business. If a successful bison breeding stock sale after the meeting at Sekura Auction market is any indication, the industry is well on its way to recovery and expansion.
Alberta has the largest number of farmed and wild bison of any jurisdiction in North America. It also has approximately 700 producers in every part of the province.
But it’s been a tough political atmosphere for the Alberta bison industry and its main organization, the BPA. Chairman Tom Olson said two major issues confront the industry – the provincial government insisted that bison producers speak with one voice and second, bison have been ignored.
The province used to have two separate bison producer organizations, both of which claimed to speak for the industry. After some government encouragement, all the groups were amalgamated into a marketing commission called the Bison Producers of Alberta, with a structure similar to the other agriculture commodity commissions.
“I have no issue with the beef industry but we needed to decouple bison from beef.”
That also allowed a checkoff on bison sales in Alberta.
The other issue of concern to the industry was recognition by government. “For instance during the BSE crisis we received zero support from the government,” Olson said. “I have no issue with the beef industry but we needed to decouple bison from beef.”
Olson said that during the hard times it was very difficult to get government attention on the grazing lease issue and the threat of having bison listed as a threatened species by the Environment Department. He said that both issues were finally resolved but only after a huge lobbying effort particularly on the threatened species issue, which could have increased regulations on bison production.
Olson said bison producers have saved and increased the bison as a species in North America, and that it is easy to expand bison numbers. “Just eat more bison and producers will raise more bison,” he said.
Checkoff not enforced
Another issue of concern to the meeting was the status of the bison checkoff. Office manager Linda Sautner reported that of the approximately 20,000 bison slaughtered in Alberta, checkoff was collected on only 3,700 head and with refund requests, only 10 per cent was retained by the commission. “The BPA was in no financial position to enforce its checkoff regulations and most producers are not voluntarily sending in checkoff,” Sautner said.
That matter sparked considerable discussion at the meeting about the future of the BPA as a commission and that perhaps producers were better off changing to a non-profit society and dropping their commission status. The BPA receives some funding from its share of fees on the sale of national ID eartags, but that source was also subject to refundability
with only 60 per cent retained by the BPA.
There was a consensus that the BPA executive needed to review the situation as to which was better for the industry. One producer mentioned that producers may want to pay just one checkoff or fee rather than the two that are presently in place.
The meeting also reviewed a strategic business plan for the BPA. The study was carried out by Paulson Cormier and Associates and outlined a three-year plan for the organization and suggested ways it may better serve the industry in general.
The meeting also heard from Alberta Ag Minister Jack Hayden, who said he understood the message and assured BPA members that the bison industry would not be ignored but would be included in any discussions on livestock programs.