GANANOQUE — Bison farmers are in the business of extremes, handling livestock that are docile and happy when given space, easy on fences when relaxed. But they’ll tear through them like paper if they get spooked. Or leap over them. The animals thrive on marginal land and low-quality grass and shrubs.
That’s the good news. As a business, farmers have seen the market contract and there’s a lot of work they have to do themselves: raise the animals, deliver them to abattoirs, pick up the meat again and store it at home and market the product. In some ways it’s a throwback to yesteryear, when farmers were frontiersmen and support systems were few and far between.
It’s certainly not where farmer Harald Mix saw himself as a young man. Featherstone Bison Ranch, just north of Gananoque, has 25 bison, down from 50 in its heyday. The German-born school teacher with an environmental science degree didn’t have much more than the scent of opportunity and a romantic notion of the West to get him started.
Raised on his family’s 20,000 acre forestry operation, Mix was brought over to Canada by a Montreal girl in 1982. They lived here and there and ended up in Brockville where she got a job. They were looking for a house: something older and rustic. They found one for a good price and ripped out anything that looked new.
They weren’t looking to farm but their new property had acreage and the neighbours had beef cattle. He started asking around and ended up getting in touch with a bison farmer at Warkworth. In 1998, Mix bought 12 Bison heifers. He bought breeding bulls from a Wolfe Island farm that later closed.
At the time the bison market was stronger and more of a live animal market, though these days it’s mostly a meat market. And bison fit into the romantic notions of the West that Mix had grown up with.
Mix had read novels by Karl May, Germany’s best-selling author, who regaled the country with tales of “cowboys and Indians and that kind of nonsense” in the late 19th century, Mix said. But May had never been to North America. “He made all this stuff up based on what he saw in Yugoslavia.” But it had captured the imagination of the country, Mix said.
The bison industry has contracted and consolidated over the years. Ontario’s small bison population fell by about 20 per cent over 20 years, dropping from 2,344 head to a mere 1,843 head in 2016. There was Ontario high of 71 bison farms in 2006 that dwindled to 49 by 2016.
But there is money to be made if you’re willing to put in the work, Mix said. Having an urban clientele is key. You need that population density. Marketing bison means hitting up farmers markets, offering farmgate sales but most of his sales are through local grocery stores. Being near a tourist destination like Gananoque helps, he said. “Tourists come through looking for stuff ready to eat: pepperettes, salami, jerky, those types of things. And of course burgers on the barbecue. And people who trust their cooking skills will try steaks.” Bison is leaner than beef and can be trickier to cook. Restaurants are normally good clients but not during COVID-19.
While bison is exotic, it’s also expensive. It sells for about $16 per lb., about twice the price of beef burgers.
Patience is also key. Bison take longer to mature than beef animals. Mix says the bison business is more of a sideline for him. His teaching job paid the bills and his pension has certainly helped smooth out cash flow. The farm isn’t huge either: about 150 acres, 50 of which is water and forest, he said.
The major concern is one shared by the whole livestock industry: processing space. Abattoirs are few and far between, and not all will take bison.
Like many abattoirs owners, Mix is getting older (he’s pushing 70) and looking at winding down and unloading some of the herd and equipment. If you live close enough to a city to market the product and have an interest in the exotic, contact Harald Mix at email@example.com.
“It’s a very complex business, you have to be aware of that,” he said. “(But a) very interesting animal to work with.”