MILLET, Alta. — It was a chance for a new life, and the Dutch couple knew they had to at least give it a try.
“We wanted to go the land of opportunity,” said Nynke Miedema, recalling the hopes and dreams she and husband, Lykele, shared when they left the Netherlands for Canada in 1983. She was 19 years old, and Lykele was 20.
She and her husband agreed. “We’ll try it for a year,” she said.
That one year turned into another, and then another. The Meidemas have now marked more than three and a half decades in Canada. Their four children, two sons and two daughters, were all born here and have started families, a farm, and businesses of their own. Lykele and Nynke also have seven grandchildren.
The couple initially worked on dairy farms in southern Alberta with plans to run their own dairy one day.
They moved north and bought a farm west of Millet in 1989. There they finished Holstein steers at the start, but in time their focus shifted.
The results are obvious in the large herds of two indigenous species they now maintain on their farm. About 400 elk and 300 bison inhabit six quarters of owned and leased land at the Miedema’s Pipestone Elk ranch.
“People I worked for had elk,” said Lykele. “They made sense. They’re native to the country. They have the meat, the velvet and the hard antler.”
Nynke said they bought their first elk in 1995, starting with 15 bulls and 17 heifers and gradually expanded.
While the elk graze during summer, they are supplemented with oats, corn, and peas. Winter feed is also brought in.
The elk are sold through Alberta Wapiti Products Co-op Ltd., a wholesale distribution company in nearby Leduc, Alta. AWAPCO supplies meat and products to markets in Canada, the United States and Europe.
The couple also sell elk velvet antler to buyers, primarily from Calgary, who process it for sale in Canada, the U.S., and Asia via Hong Kong. The velvet antler is used in traditional oriental medicine.
Elk velvet antler is harvested from the end of May until mid-July, before the antler begins to calcify. It is stored in a freezer on the farm until purchased.
The Meidemas have managed to weather some difficult years. Chronic wasting disease put a serious strain on the North American elk industry during the early 2000s.
“Prices went down to nothing,” said Nynke. “From a cow being worth $20,000 they went down to $100 each. But we really liked the industry so wanted to stay with it.”
A drought at the same time provided an additional challenge.
“We survived by selling meat at the farmers market,” said Lykele. “Our girls helped. They had to deal with the public and promote. They learned a lot about business.”
The family persisted through the problems and eventually the elk market improved. However, other issues resulting from CWD played a part in their decision to decrease herd numbers.
“The elk are very heavily regulated,” said Nynke.
Time-consuming record keeping and annual government audits and inspection requirements prompted the couple to pull back from the industry.
After some research they started into bison about 10 years ago.
“Bison is more like the beef industry and they’re very economical because they’re native to the land,” said Lykele.
Bison require minimal handling. They’re accustomed to the climate and grow thick wooly coats in winter. They prefer to bed without straw, often seeking the protection of bush. They feed on native grasses with mineral supplementation in summer and purchased feed in winter. Much of their pasture is treed and rocky, so it’s a good use of land unsuitable for cropping.
The couple plan to continue to expand their bison herd by holding back the best heifers.
Meat animals are sold when they are about two years old to Rangeland Meats in Lacombe, Alta.
Elk and bison are handled in the farm’s heavy corral system.
“We change the squeeze out for the bison,” said Lykele.
All herds are raised behind eight foot page wire fence.
The Miedemas also have about 30 Angus cows grazing near Drayton Valley through a lease arrangement.
Pipestone Elk is also home to an assortment of other animals. A few Boer goat pets with guard dog protection pasture near the house.
The Miedemas’ youngest son, Mitchell, a carpenter, recently finished building his mom a chicken coop so she can keep a few hens for household egg use.
Nearby, a den of foxes with about a dozen kits raises a few concerns about the safety of the future chickens, but for now the foxes provide entertainment for Lykele and Nynke. They appreciate the abundance of wildlife on the land and in the skies above.
They say they often find that visitors from Holland want to tour Pipestone Elk .
“Bison and elk don’t exist there,” saud Lykele. “They find it intriguing.”
The couple agree that Canada’s reputation as being a land of opportunity has proven true.
“We feel privileged to live here and are blessed to call Canada home,” said Lykele.