There is enthusiasm and optimism in the industry after years of hard times
NEW SAREPTA, Alta. — One year ago, Christine and Barry Harrison were two years into their five-year exit plan from the elk industry.
After a dozen years of tough financial times, the couple no longer wanted to stay in the elk business.
Then the price of elk antler jumped, the price of meat jumped and the price of live animals jumped.
Now they are starting their five-year expansion plan.
Their Shooting Star Ranch has increased from 40 to 95 elk and they wished they had more on their 80-acre ranch outside of Edmonton.
Part of their plan is for Barry to retire from his off-farm job to work full time with Christine selling, promoting and raising elk.
“They are awesome animals,” said Christine.
Alberta elk has seen dramatic rises and falls in prices and farm numbers since it started as an alternative livestock industry almost 30 years ago.
At first, it seemed like a license to print money. Elk velvet antler sold for $100 a pound or higher at its peak, and it wasn’t unheard of for an elk to bring in $2,000 a year just for antler.
It was heady times for the 420 producers raising 45,000 to 55,000 elk in Alberta. Then chronic wasting disease was discovered in an elk ex-ported from Canada to South Korea, which was the industry’s most lucrative market.
The border slammed shut in 2000 and has never reopened.
At its lowest point, elk velvet sold for $10 a pound, which wasn’t enough to pay for the animal’s feed.
Today, 212 producers raise 16,000 elk in the province.
It was when the bottom fell out that Christine decided her animals needed to pay for themselves or be shipped for slaughter.
“The elk need to start paying their way,” said Christine.
They butchered five elk and started selling the meat. The elk velvet antler was turned into elk velvet antler capsules.
Barry made a bright yellow sandwich board sign, and Christine packed a cooler full of elk meat and sat by the side of the road near Nisku, Alta., a busy oilfield community.
In three hours she sold $200 worth of elk meat and jerky to oil workers.
“It seemed like a windfall.”
Next, Christine set up shop at Edmonton area farmers markets. At first, she resented spending every Saturday selling meat and elk products; she would rather be camping.
However, she changed her mind as she met customers and started to sell her products.
“For the last four years, it has been unreal. It is the perfect place to portray your product. I love the people,” she said.
She sells meat, elk antler dog chews, belt buckles, key chains, buttons, and clocks made from elk antler and elk antler capsules for humans and elk antler powder for dogs.
“You have to work at it. Nothing is going to come easy,” said Christine.
One-third of their income now comes from meat, one-third from live animal sales and one-third from elk velvet capsules and powders for dogs and humans.
Connie Seutter, chair of Alberta Elk Producers, said higher prices have brought a new attitude and atmosphere to the entire elk industry.
“Everything is looking up,” said Seutter.
Last season’s elk velvet sold for about $40 a pound, and a good bull raised for a hunt farm could sell for $20,000 or higher.
“There is such enthusiasm and optimism in the industry,” said Seutter, who has increased her Sandy Hills Elk Ranch from 400 animals to 500 animals.
They have bought more land and hope to add more animals.