RED DEER – Ivan Smith doesn’t have a problem pitching in to cut and wrap meat and serve customers when things get busy at his bison processing plant and store in Red Deer.
“I have never worried what other people thought,” he said while touring one of his bison herds near Sylvan Lake, Alta. “I just find a way of doing it on my own.”
The meat market is where the 36-year-old bison rancher spends his time.
Building a meat market has been the difference between watching the bison industry collapse and inventing a new way of doing business.
The breeding market started to falter about 10 years ago and then the discovery of BSE in Canadian cattle shut bison meat out of export markets.
Those two events led to herd dispersals and the culling of breeding females, just as consumers were developing a taste for the meat that is lean, low in cholesterol and raised without growth hormones.
Most of the producers who direct marketed their bison to a loyal customer base were not affected by the decline in the industry, but those without an outlet were hurt. They needed someone with imagination and a willingness to take the meat to the next level.
Smith had started working in a pharmacy when he was 14 and saw too many unhealthy people come to the store. The opportunity to sell them a nutritious, natural food product was attractive.
Later, he bought his grandmother’s 100-year-old farm when she planned to sell it to foreign investors.
He had about 30 beef cows and decided to add bison, even though he had never seen one up close until they were unloaded at his place. His herd eventually grew to 2,100 head spread over several properties.
By 2005, he was buying dispersal herds and in 2007 he killed 3,600 cows to supply his own markets. He was selling 6,000 to 7,000 bison a year.
Smith sold meat at farmers’ markets, but he could not provide fresh product. A store seemed the best approach.
He now owns stores in Olds, Alta., and Camrose as well as an upscale meat shop in Red Deer. Another Red Deer location handles processing and operates a small meat counter.
The meat is sold under the names Big Bend Ranches and Big Bend Markets.
Carcasses arrive on Monday mornings from Sunterra Meats in Innisfail, Alta., Canadian Premium Meats in Lacombe, Alta., or YB Meats in Red Deer.
The plant handles 10 to 20 carcasses per week, but the capacity exists for at least 25 a week.
The plant makes 2,700 pounds of bison burgers a week and ships them to Smith’s stores, restaurants and six farmers’ markets.
Steaks, roasts and further processed products such as deli meat, sausages and other specialty items are also sold.
As well, Smith works with other local food processors to sell their cheese, eggs, pork, beef and condiments.
Organs are used for pet food and bones are sold to urban dog owners.
His products are sold across Canada and he depends on 40 producers as well as his own herd to supply meat.
He said the demand exists for more meat production but finding enough slaughter animals remains a challenge.
“I can find a market for every animal, but ideally what I want is an 1,150 pound bull and a 950 lb. heifer. Hopefully the heifer supply gets tighter due to the fact that people are retaining females.”
The shortage of animals threatens his ability to fill more orders because bison is gaining popularity around the world.
He wants more people to join the business and thinks a producer could make a decent living with 100 cows
“That’s the beauty of bison,” he said. “It’s not about the numbers, it’s more about being efficient in what you do.”
He said bison require less management than cattle. Producers have to decide whether to pursue a cow-calf operation or feedlot.
“Find out what you are good at and align yourself with somebody who is going to look after you if they are going to do what they say they do,” he said.
He pays his producers a premium price whether they are selling him beef, pork or bison.
“The demand is tremendous,” he said.
“We are such a small market if we grow. One percent of a market share against beef, that is a huge market share for the small market that we are.”
He said bison are undervalued and he is confident it will continue to improve, but only a few are willing to make a life change and try a new species to save the farm.
“What worked in the past doesn’t always work in the future,” he said.
“My neighbours laughed at me when I unloaded bison. Now they’re saying, ‘Ivan just bought a new tractor and he didn’t have to mortgage it.’ ”