Is bison a fully industrialized production system or a heritage animal raised in the most natural way possible?
Canadian bison producers were challenged to think differently about the animals they raise during a presentation at their annual convention last week.
“This is your navel-gazing talk,” said Dr. Terry Whiting, animal welfare manager with Manitoba Agriculture. “I want you to think about the idea of a bison more than a bison itself.”
Bison have gone from being the most abundant ruminant on the Great Plains to nearly eradicated to now an industrialized animal.
First Nations have an idea of what bison represent to them. Europeans’ ideas about bison likely come from early paintings as North America was explored and settled. Others see bison simply as dinner.
“A bison is a geological, biological, environmental, ethical, political, critical, religious construction,” Whiting said.
“The bison is more than just a bison. And the bison is also a food product.”
He said the bison industry has layers, and not everyone will like every layer.
Whiting offered two definitions of bison producers: one who produces a competitive product for the consumer market, tolerates some industrial practices, uses grain to meet required meat quality standards and wants to get bigger, and one who raises a heritage animal in the most natural way possible, eschews industrialized agriculture, uses only essential practices such as a blackleg vaccine and focuses on being environmentally embedded in the rural community.
“Probably all the people who say yes to the first definition also say yes to the second,” Whiting said.
“That is the paradoxical nature of the bison industry.”
Agriculture production has moved to an industrialized model since the end of the Second World War, and Whiting said he doesn’t want bison to become the next turkey, which has become fully industrialized and can’t even fly anymore.
“There is some questioning of society of the whole more-faster-cheaper mentality,” Whiting said in an interview.
One of the current theories of agriculture is that of post-production agriculture, which Whiting describes as a quality-based method of production values that sustains rural landscapes and enjoys social and government support.
He said bison could fit into this system.
“It’s primarily emerging in Europe where people are taking on agriculture kind of as a second career,” he said.
“They’re relatively stable. They have an old farm owned in the family. They go back to the farm as part of the retirement and produce various commodities for primarily local consumption.”
One bison producer he met at the convention actually fits that description, he said. He is a retired professional who 10 years ago went back to the family farm. He now has 30 cows and sells 100 percent of his production locally.
Customers bring their children to the farm even at the time of slaughter to make them more conscientious about food consumption.
“The responsibility for environmental protection, turning off the lights when you leave a room … those sort of ethics are quite easy to teach,” Whiting said.
“The ethics of food consumption is much more subtle and difficult to communicate to your children. I think that’s kind of a change in society, and it’s big enough now to be attracting attention in the marketplace.”
He said bison producers have to consider their own ideas of what bison are and what type of production system they want.
“I think that’s an area of growth that’s happening in the bison industry and it’s an area of contention,” Whiting said. “People have to talk about it and they have to think about it and they have to maintain the faith that this is why we went into bison production.”