From the Alps to Alberta: This couple pays it forward

Last month, Armin and Rita Mueller donated $4 million to Lakeland College to purchase land and establish a bison herd at the college. Lakeland plans to offer a bison production course by September 2021 and the donation will allow it to expand its training in sustainable range and forage management. The following is a story of the Muellers and the reasons for their donation.

It didn’t take long for Canada to make a favourable impression on Armin Mueller.

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“I came to Canada in 1975 to work on a dairy in Quebec,” he said. “Ten days after I arrived, I mailed my first letter home to my family in Switzerland. I wrote that I wasn’t coming back. I also remember the first letter I got back from home. My brother said, ‘You know, you’re a dumb dreamer. You’ll be back.”

Armin’s brother Xavier was wrong — and 45 years later, Mueller has no regrets.

“There was no room for me over there. I needed to make my own opportunities elsewhere,” said Mueller, who moved to Alberta in 1977 to work on another dairy.

Rita Sigrist also grew up on a small farm in Switzerland, and came to Canada in 1977 on an international agricultural exchange program to work at a grain farm near Bassano. She and Armin met in 1978 when both were visiting their families in Switzerland. They married in 1980 and settled on a dairy farm near Bentley that Armin purchased in 1979. They named it Pilatus Farms after the Swiss mountain between their families’ farms.

Things started out well for the Muellers as the dairy industry was booming. But an expansion was followed by record-high interest rates — within a few years they were paying up to 24.5 per cent interest on a $1-million loan.

“We didn’t take many holidays. We worked hard and put in long days all year long. We didn’t know anything else. But we were happy,” said Armin.

None of their three children wanted to dairy farm, so Armin and Rita sold the cows and milk quota in 2000 and bought 300 head of bison, an animal that’s always fascinated Armin.

“As a little boy, I was captivated with the West. I was reading books and watching western movies. Bison always had a significant role.”

Along with the herd, they also invested in Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk, a marketing company.

Bad news often comes in threes, and that was the case for the Muellers. Drought, BSE and the near collapse of Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk occurred shortly after they began raising bison.

“We had bison and we needed a place for the meat, so, without any experience whatsoever, we took over the company and kept it going,” said Armin.

Today Canadian Rangeland Bison sells prime bison meat throughout North America and Europe. The Muellers were also founding partners in 2006 of Canadian Premium Meats, a processing company. They sold their investment in that company five years ago.

Although Armin jokes that investing in bison was the result of a midlife crisis, there’s nothing he’s enjoyed more during his career than raising and marketing bison.

“I love everything about bison. The way they run, the way they behave, the way they roll in the dirt,” he said. “And I really love the meat. It’s high in protein, high in iron and the way we raise bison is as close to nature as we can get.”

Armin and Rita’s daughter Michelle and her husband Steven are now involved in Pilatus Ranches and Canadian Rangeland Bison.

“Michelle and Steven have a real love for bison. I guess Michelle got a little bit of that from her old man,” Armin said with a smile.

Strong partnerships helped the Muellers succeed.

“To be successful you need the right partners. You need the right partner in marriage, and in business. You also need the right employees and I’ve been fortunate in all of these areas,” said Armin.

Rita said their journey has always been interesting.

“I think you get into this together and you don’t think ahead, you just do it,” she said. “You work through it. It wasn’t always easy, but if we look back now, 40 years later, I wouldn’t have wanted anything different. It’s been great. Canada’s been good for us.”

The Muellers consider their gift to Lakeland College an investment in the future of the bison industry. Students will learn more about bison and take that knowledge with them throughout their careers.

“I think this will really help strengthen the Canadian bison brand,” he said.

Armin’s advice to students is to try new paths, think outside the box, and don’t be afraid of failure.

“If it doesn’t work out but you learn from your mistakes, it’ll make you a stronger person.”

And, of course, never quit dreaming.

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