Turning on a Dime

One aspect of bison that never ceases to amaze me is their ability to turn on a dime.

A bison running full speed will plant a front hoof in the ground, spin, and run full speed in another direction. Mother Nature perfected that ability to equip them to escape threats when able, and to face danger head-on when necessary.

Mother Nature instilled some of that same ability into bison ranchers and marketers.  

At least, that’s what occurred to me on Monday as I listened to the opening day of our Week of Virtual Learning, the on-line webinars scheduled as a replacement for our cancelled Summer Conference.

We’ve been severely rattled by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic during the past three months. As noted in the comments that the National Bison Association submitted to USDA urging that bison producers be provided with access to federal support on par with our neighbors in the cattle business, bison ranchers, finishers and marketers alike have been hit hard since March. Live bison prices have dropped, scheduling animals for processing is a nightmare, the farmers’ markets opening this season are doing so on a limited basis, and agritourism…let’s not even get into that one.  

On Monday, though, six NBA member-marketers shared how they have pivoted during the past 90 days to face the market disruption head-on. Three commercial marketer panelists shared how they transitioned business to focus more on retail or direct-to-consumer markets when restaurants shut down in March. One — Western Buffalo Co.– even processed hogs for a brief time to weather the storm.

The three farm-direct marketers have initiated call-ahead ordering with curbside pickup to offset the loss of their farmers’ market business, and are expanding their on-line stores.  And all noted that customers are becoming more interested in knowing where food comes from, and how it was produced.

Growing interest in transparency and accountability is not an isolated phenomenon.

Carlotta Mast of New Hope Network and Nick McCoy of Whipstitch Capital unveiled results of new consumer research they conducted for the National Bison Association. That research indicates that the interwoven story of bison’s role in regenerating healthy ecosystems may resonate with our potential customers more than our longstanding emphasis on low-fat/high-iron meat content. 

I ended Monday’s session with a big smile on my face. Once again, unforeseen forces threaten our business and our ability to restore herds across North America. Yet, once again, we demonstrate the ability to firmly plant that hoof, pivot, and charge toward a sustainable future.

USDA Yardstick Can’t Measure Weight of COVID Impact on Bison

Suppose you wanted to buy a pen of calves but needed to know the weights.

“No problem,” the owner replies. “In fact, why don’t you weigh them yourself right now? Use this,” he adds, as he hands you a yardstick.

Ludicrous, right?

That’s not too far removed from the situation bison producers are facing as they attempt to use USDA’s rigid yardstick of mid-April prices vs. Mid-January prices to document the weight of COVID-19’s economic impact on our business.

In case you haven’t heard, USDA’s $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) unveiled last month solely directed benefits to producers of commodities in which sufficient market data existed to prove at least a five percent decline in prices between mid-January and mid-April.

Now, USDA is offering an additional $637 million in assistance to producers who weren’t covered in the original announcement, but only if those producers can demonstrate at least a five percent drop in the price they received for their “commodities” between mid-January and mid-April.

Bison are not a commodity. Most ranchers sell their calves once each year, in the period from November to March. The price being offered for calves right now is much lower than in January, but individual producers will not be able to document the impact until they sell the next crop of calves this fall. Can they qualify? Nope.

Bison finishers may be slightly better positioned to document the impact, but many don’t sell animals on a monthly basis either. If they don’t have mid-April sales to compare with mid-January, will they qualify? Nope.

Farm direct marketers comprise a significant percentage of overall bison producers. How the heck can a marketer document the impact from January vs. April if their primary outlet is a farmers’ market that is normally closed in January and unable to open this April? Or, if they have an agritourism operation that operates primarily from spring through fall? Will USDA accept the loss in value of inventory, or the lack of paying visitors? Nope.

We’re not alone. Producers of many other agricultural products have been locked out because USDA’s three-month yardstick can’t measure the impact they are experiencing.

This week, House Agriculture Committee Chair U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and three subcommittee chairs sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressing serious concern over the methodology USDA has utilized to establish eligibility for CFAP assistance.

The committee chairs wrote, “It remains unclear how producers of products that are not sold in cash markets with publicly reported prices (e.g., commodities that sell primarily to retail, farmers’ markets, fast food, and restaurant markets) and suffered significant market losses will meet the price data requirements of the CFAP Notice of Funding Availability. Impacted sectors include domestic aquaculture, bison, poultry, cut flowers, nursery products, and potatoes.” (Emphasis added.)

The letter notes that even for those commodities deemed eligible for assistance, many producers’ marketing programs do not fit neatly into the January-April requirement.

“USDA chose to cover livestock sales between January 15th and April 15th when COVID-19-related livestock market declines did not begin until February 2020 and some of the lowest market prices persisted well beyond April 15th, effectively arbitrarily picking winners and losers based solely on when livestock was sold without regard to actual market conditions,” they wrote.

The National Bison Association is working diligently to document COVID’s impact on our business using the USDA’s rigid yardstick. But until the agency decides to provide us with something closer to a scale, that yardstick will seem only like a rap on the knuckles.

What’s In Your Burger?

Plant-based protein.

It’s all the rage in the world of food these days.

 News media business pages are filled with stories of plant-based protein startups gaining shelf space in grocery stores. Old-line meat companies are rolling out new lines of “plant-based” protein. A legion of exhibitors at the Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, CA in March touted their “plant-based protein” offerings with claims of better nutrition and environmental benefits.     

So, just what is “plant-based protein?”

The basic definition is a high-protein food made exclusively from plants. That is a very accurate definition of bison meat. In fact, if we could list an “ingredient panel” on a package of bison meat, it would probably read, “grass, grain, minerals.”

Let’s compare that to one of the new upstarts: Impossible Burger. I don’t have enough space here to go through all 21 ingredients on their list, 14 of which are patented as intellectual property. So, I focused in on a few:

  • Soy leghemoglobin – This ingredient has been genetically engineered by inserting the DNA of GMO soy leghemoglobin into yeast and fermenting it into something that resembles the blood in real meat.  
  • Zinc gluconate – This is “the zinc salt of gluconic acid, and is an ionic compound consisting of two anions of gluconate for each zinc cation.” Yeah, I don’t understand that one either, but it sure doesn’t sound like plants are involved. In all fairness, it’s commonly used in dietary supplements, usually with the warning, “consult physician before use.”

Here’s my favorite:

  • Methylcellulose– The first description that popped up when I Googled this one describes it as “a bulk-forming laxative that increases the amount of water in your stools to help make them softer and easier to pass.”

Okay, so these plant-based proteins aren’t quite as simple as touted, but they certainly have nutritional benefit…right? 

Not exactly.  A 100-gram serving of Impossible Burger provides 212 calories, 13 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein, while a similar serving of Beyond Meat delivers 239 calories, 15 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein. Meanwhile, the nutritional panel on a leading ground bison brand lists 190 calories, 11 grams of fat and 23 grams of protein. When it comes to sodium, Impossible Burger has 327 milligrams, Beyond Meat has 513 milligrams, and bison has 60 milligrams. That makes sense. Salt always makes bland food more palatable, even as it clogs arteries.

Then, there’s the claim of environmental benefits. Seriously?  Nearly 40 percent of North America’s ecosystem—the grasslands—evolved under continuous interaction with bison and other grazing animals. Bison sculpted the landscape, creating an ecosystem with healthy soils that sequester carbon and are lush with a diversity of plant and animal life.

The University of California at Davis last year published a study entitled Grasslands More Resilient Carbon Sink than Forests. The study concluded, “(G)rasslands store more carbon than forests because they are impacted less by droughts and wildfires. This doesn’t even include the potential benefits of good land management to help boost soil health and increase carbon stocks in rangelands.”

I doubt that soy leghemoglobin, zinc gluconate, or methylcellulose can effectively manage those grasslands as effectively as bison and other grazers. 

Finally, there’s the claim of taste. Really? Not even close. Just click on the recipes found elsewhere on this website. Deliciously healthy bison remains unmatched in flavor, nutrition and environmental benefits.

That’s why bison can rightfully claim to be Nature’s Original Plant-Based Protein.