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The Business Of Bison Recovers In Alberta

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Your dream is rapidly turning into a nightmare and you wonder “whatever happened to the notion of free trade?”

Bison Producers of Alberta

Imagine the year is 2003. You’ve borrowed as much as you can from the banks and other financial institutions because you have a dream. It is not just about your future, but the future of your children. The hope for independence and freedom, and security for the ones you care most about. You’ve expanded your herd size, increased your capacity and developed more infrastructure to meet what you anticipate will be the increased demand for your output.

You didn’t just borrow more money. You have also invested untold of amounts of your spirit and energy into at least one, and perhaps two, “off-farm jobs” to help with the cash flow and service the debt. Now you and your partner are up before dawn and hitting the sack about the same time regular folks are turning off “The Tonight Show.”

Then the unthinkable happens. One canadian dairy cow is confirmed to have BSE and the USDA ban on ruminants wipes out your ability to ship over 70 per cent of your bison and bison meat products into the U. S. You share the anger and frustration loudly proclaimed by the cattle industry. It’s just not fair. The old cliché “Life is not fair” becomes very real.

You protest! These aren’t cattle – they’re bison. Bison are different! It doesn’t matter. Bison are ruminants and all ruminants are caught up in the BSE ban. Your dream is rapidly turning into a nightmare and you wonder “whatever happened to the notion of free trade?”

You look for the alternatives – such as developing new markets for bison inside the rest of Canada, but it’s not that simple. To market bison meat outside of Alberta requires the animal to be processed at a federally inspected plant. Remember, it’s the summer of 2003 and there is only one federally approved bison processing plant left in the entire province.

But back to the “Business of Bison.” The key is to create sustainability not only for the farm, but for the bison and the natural land. The door that is opening is “local.” And the bison industry turned to and nurtured the local consumer market. The vehicles to get back on track included farm gate marketing, farmers markets, local newspaper ads, donating meat to local community charities and events, supplying friends, families and neighbors with a great-tasting meat product that has 30 per cent less fat than other more traditional products. Significant “word-of-mouth” promotion helped stem the tide of red ink. Producers renewed their commitment to belong to their industry organization – the Bison Producers of Alberta. In concert with the marketing efforts of their association, producers saw renewed hope and vigour return to an industry, and animal base, that is destined to grow and regenerate the herds of bison across the Alberta landscape.

There has also been renewed interest from the people of the First Nations. For the First Nations, the connection with bison is spiritual, cultural and a return to a way of life that was sustained by the “Monarch of the Plains.”

By the end of 2008, local consumer demand for this high-quality, healthful and beneficial source of nutrition helped bring sale prices to the highest levels that bison producers have seen in the last five years.

Most bison producers did not get into the business looking for a “get rich quick scheme” – they truly care about these magnificent animals, and love is not too strong a word. Higher sale prices are encouraging existing producers to expand their herd size and capacity – slowly and surely the entire industry is growing. Processing capacity has expanded with the development of two additional Federally inspected processing plants within Alberta.

New entrants to the agricultural industry are looking to bison as a rewarding and profitable venture. In addition, other traditional ranchers are looking to diversify their operations by including bison as part of their existing operations. Bison producers are being recognized as excellent stewards of the land – that which they own or lease. They are concerned about the environment and the return of bison and the natural prairie habitat. Many have even established “wildlife-friendly” fencing in consideration of other wildlife species.

Most marketing experts will confirm that it takes five to six times as much in financial resources to attract a new customer as it does to service your existing customer base. A significant part of the process for the bison industry to expand and be sustainable is to focus first on the local markets. The latest consumer trend is to buy “local.” Consumers want the confidence and assurance that buying “locally” provides –in taste, nutrition and food safety.

The opportunity will then expand to serve an ever-growing national Canadian market as bison herds in other provinces become established in greater numbers. New forms of marketing, including the Internet and Alberta Government initiatives such as the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency will develop the international markets as well, including Asia and Europe.

And the dream will become a reality – freedom, independence and security – by providing a sustainable combination – bison and Alberta prairie land.

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