We need more bison producers!

I was excited to bump into the Alberta Bison Producers who were holding their regional meeting October 19 and 20 at the Prairie Inn, Grande Prairie where I was also staying. They graciously allowed me to crash their breakfast party. We talked about some of their key issues.

Natural, fresh, Canadian - the bison has it all! Bison meat has become a hot commodity.

They need more bison producers. The market is strong, consumers want to purchase bison meat, but the industry can’t deliver enough. “You risk losing market share if you can’t supply,” says Ivan Smith, vice-chair of the association and owner/operator of Big Bend Bison Ranch and Big Bend Market in Red Deer (www.bigbendbison.com/. “It’s just filling that need 52 weeks a year.”

“The consumer knows about the value of the product now,” adds Keleigh Cormier, who together with husband Pierre is project manager for the Alberta Bison Producers association (http://www.bisoncentre.com/). The education has been done – both by this and other bison associations, and by the health industry which advocates the advantages of lean meat, preferably grass fed. The bison has it all.

“We are ahead of the pack in terms of high quality product,” Pierre says.

This is quite a turn around from a few years ago. Smith remembers a time when producers gave the meat away for the price of cut and wrapping. Many producers liquidated their herds at that time. Those that made it through those lean years are cashing in now.

With an increased concern for both their individual health and that of the environment, consumers are looking for healthy high-value local products. That’s good for local businesses such as Smith’s in Red Deer, which saw an even bigger spike after the recent E-coli scare.

Bison is generally a higher priced meat product. That isn’t much of a deterrent anymore in Alberta, where average income tends to be higher than other areas of Canada. It’s not just Canadians that are eating bison though. Alberta Bison Producers chair Thomas Ackermann and his partner market bison worldwide (www.rangelandbison.ca). Ackermann told me an important customer is Coop Switzerland, where I shop regularly. I’ll have to check for his bison products next time I’m in Switzerland!

Glen and Eldine Kjemhus, of Hythe Alberta, supply Maddhatters with the bison meat. The good reputation the Kjemhus' enjoy in the community is important for Maddhatter's executive chef Matthew Toni.

Matthew Toni is executive chef of Maddhatters Liquid Lounge and Crazy Cuisine, Grande Prairie’s premier nightclub lounge offering high quality lunch and dinner options (http://www.maddhatters.com/). Maddhatter’s lounge seats over 250 people. They regularly feature bison on their menu. May was bison month at Maddhatters. “We’ve never had a line up before 11:30 before,” says Toni. When word got around that the bison barley soup was sold out the day before, people made sure to be there early. That month the restaurant sold 5700 items that contained bison, using just over two whole carcasses.

Strong demand is good news in any industry. The challenge now is to meet the demand, before something or someone else does.

The group took me along to Adam Ranch, oldest bison ranch in Alberta. I’ll tell you something about that next week.

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