Wild Things

Jack Danylchuk

The news from Banks Island has not been good: musk ox are dying there and a rare disease is suspected, potentially placing the wily, wandering goat of the Arctic off limits to commercial hunters, making the rare delicacy even more difficult to procure.

Mark Hills takes the news in stride. The founder of Hills Fine Foods and a pioneer in the game meat business, Hills is the main supplier of exotic fare in western Canada, the source for such delicacies as mipkuzola, the dry-cured haunch of musk ox, alligator and kangaroo loin.

Supply is always a challenge, says Hills, and demand is stronger than ever — driven by greater consumer awareness and concern for what’s on their plates, growing appetites for game meat in the United States and Europe and a new place at the table set for pampered family pets.

Demand is pushing prices ever higher, and that worries Normand Campbell, who for the past decade has focused the menu of his landmark Edmonton restaurant on wild and farmed game meat.

Over the last two years, the price for a plate of game meat at Normand’s has gone from $30 to $45, a price that reflects rising costs, and one that he considers high — but customers have not complained.

“It’s easier and less expensive to put kangaroo on the plate than musk ox, and caribou is out of the question,” laments Campbell. “There is none available at any price.”

The demand for healthier food has also added to pressure on prices, says Campbell. “Game meat is grass finished, not fattened with grain or corn, it has less fat, no hormones or antibiotics, it’s closer to the Neanderthal diet that everyone is talking about.”

And then there’s the pet food market, which has doubled the wholesale price of “trim” from farmed bison and elk — the meat that was ground for burgers and sausage — to $15 a kilo, a change generally welcomed by the hardy survivors in Alberta’s game meat industry.

A web search turns up more than a dozen companies that tempt pet owners with game meat. Champion Pet Foods is a late entry into the crowded market. Starting this fall, the Morinville company will launch a “whole prey” line of freeze-dried food.

“Our pet food is fit for human consumption,” said Erin Prefontaine, a Champion spokesperson. “The whole prey line will mimic the diet of the grey wolf in the wild; it will contain elk and it comes from the same ranch that supplies meat to the Fairmont hotel chain.”

Although some game ranchers are uneasy supplying premium meat to the pet food industry, Richard Bidulock has embraced it fully. A 25-year industry veteran who experienced all the highs and lows, Bidulock and his wife Dawn decided to leave the traditional markets to others and focus on their own brand of pet food.

The Bidulock farm near Hairy Hill raises beef, llama, and elk for Nature’s Premium pet food. Every cut except the loin goes into the raw frozen food that fetches premium prices from dog and cat owners. The prime cut is reserved for the family dinner table.

Raw frozen pet food commands premium prices: up to $3 a day for cats; $7 a day for the average dog and $10 a day for a large dog, by Bidulock’s estimate.

Earl and Deb Hagman have been raising and marketing European wild boar since 1991. Meat from their animals is prized by restaurants and bow hunters pay to stalk the boars on the Hagman’s Lily Creek Ranch near Mayerthorpe.

The meat is red, tastes more like baby beef than pork, and expensive. Choice cuts, chops and tenderloin command $36 a kg and trim brings $15 a kg — mostly as premium pet food which has established a solid floor price, said Hagman.

“Only so many people will pay $15 for ground wild boar when ground beef is $4,” Hagman observes. “So we need all our markets — restaurants, hunters and pet food suppliers — to survive. In 20 years, the Alberta herd has shrunk. A lot of people got in, but there was too much, and no coordinated effort to market.”

The pet food market “blew up like a balloon,” says Diana O’Hara, operations manager with the Alberta Elk Commission. It happened about ten years ago, as the ranched elk business finally got moving in 2001, after coping with scares created by mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease and crash of the Asian market for antler velvet.

Initially developed to supply the antler market, elk ranching grew quickly as breeders and enthusiastic hobbyists rushed in, then just as quickly headed for the exits. When the dust settled, O’Hara said the industry decided the best way to go forward was to develop a co-operative for meat sales.

Elk ranchers are now struggling to keep up with demand. Meat is exported to Europe and the U.S., to ranches in Saskatchewan where trophy hunting is legal, and the velvet market, which drew so many in to disappointment, has also recovered.

Production has been 4,000 animals a year for last four years and that will probably be the limit until the herd expands, O’Hara said. The herd now numbers 6,000 animals in Alberta, 13,000 in Saskatchewan. Ten years ago it was 45,000 animals, but there is only one federal slaughter facility in Alberta, and that is another limiting factor on the domestic supply side, she says.

“Ranched elk is not like the elk our grandfathers brought home from the hunt,” says O’Hara. “The flavour is a bit stronger, like the difference between lamb and beef, but it doesn’t have a real wild tang.”

The difference is enough to set elk apart from bison. Larry Stewart, Hardware Grill, at one time offered bison short ribs, slow cooked, satisfying and savoury. To his taste, it’s a lot like beef, so elk tenderloin replaced bison on the menu, Stewart says, because it has a stronger taste of the wild.

“Bison is a lot like beef,” he says, and as it became commonplace, it lost its fascination for diners. The proof for Stewart is that no on has asked for it since he dropped it from the menu.

As the director of the Bison Producers Association, Linda Sautner has been “pushing bison for 10 years at trade shows. In the early days, people sampled a lot, but weren’t sure if they wanted to buy — we gave away three whole animals.

Bison is “richer than beef, not gamey like elk and deer,” says Sautner. “Little by little, by word of mouth, the word spread: low cholesterol, high protein, lean, no hormones or antibiotics. Then came BSE.”

In the 90’s, the herd size was approaching 100,000 animals.
Now there are perhaps 60,000 bison in Alberta. Live animals can be bought reasonably. It is no longer an industry driven by demand for breeding stock as it was in the early days. Now it’s a meat industry.

“More bison producers are leaving than coming, but that’s the same for agriculture,” says Sautner, “it’s come down to agribusiness or hobby farms.”

In the rush to get out of the bison market after the mad cow episode, ranchers slaughtered breeding animals. Larissa Helbig recalls seeing bison burger meat selling for less than beef at a supermarket in Devon. Now it isn’t to be found.

“Producers have been holding back heifers to rebuild herds,” says Helbig, who has been ranching bison at near Edmonton with her father since 1999.

Helbig that the supply of slaughter animals is down by 25 per cent as ranchers hold back cows to rebuild herds and meet demand for meat.

It’s an expensive business. It takes five years to produce a marketable calf, which means holding the animals through the winter and maintaining their weight on a high-fibre diet.

“There’s a market for every part of the animal. I was going to sell the offal to the pet food market, but I found a buyer for the heart, liver and kidneys. The trim, if I had any, would go into sausages,” says Helbig, who never gets to eat the prime cuts from her animals. “Loin is $70 a kilogram, ribeye $45. That’s where the profit is.”

Jerry Kitt’s first encounter with bison was a herd of runaways that made their way through forest and field, 150 miles and arrived at his farm. “They were so majestic,” says Kitt, and the idea was planted firmly in his mind: he wanted to raise bison and bought six animals, the base for a herd that now numbers 40.

Bison are difficult to manage. Possessed of a powerful herd instinct, they are hard to confine or separate. They will try anything to stay together, and a thousand pound animal is not easy to fence. They retain a wild spirit, even after generations in captivity.

First Nature Farms raises grass fed beef, chickens, turkeys, Berkshire hogs, all certified organic, since 1990. He is one of the pioneers of the trend in Alberta, and you can buy his products every Saturday at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market where his daughter Kari manages a stand.

“It seemed like a natural thing; we always farmed without chemicals” on land that has been left mostly in its natural state. “People have farmed forever without chemicals and I could see problems; I wanted no part of it.”

Kitt attributes demand for organic products to greater awareness of the benefits of eating meat from animals that were raised on pasture, not finished in a feedlot, with grain, where crowding may require that they be treated with hormones and antibiotics.

“Those animals are just not as healthy,” he says, “and a feedlot needs a lot of infrastructure, for grain processing and storage. With grass, it’s so much simpler, and better.”

“Bison is so connected to this land,” says Kitt. “The country was built on it; it’s the meat we need to eat.”

Kitt has been approached a few times by the pet food industry, but regards the emergence of that market as “a sad thing. It makes a difference to my life if I’m raising food for a family, or a dog. I do not like raising meat for animals. I have issues with that. I have pets, but they don’t eat bison.”

But once the meat is in the buyer’s hands, it’s theirs to do with as they please. One of Kitt’s best customers for organic turkey was a woman who bought one every year. He remarked on it, that she must really enjoy the flavor of the birds, and she told him: “I’m a vegetarian. This is for my cat.”

JD is old enough to remember a time when game was common on tables across the west.

Larissa Helbig is recovering at home after suffering fractured ribs and a punctured lung in an on-ranch accident in early August.