Navigating Choppy Waters

Dave Carter

Last year began with more than 600 bison ranchers, marketers and enthusiasts gathering in Denver, CO to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Bison Association. There was a lot to celebrate:

  • The bison business had enjoyed a decade-long run of steadily increasing market prices and producer profitability.
  • The cooperation between the National Bison Association, Tribal leaders and conservationists that led to designation of bison as the National Mammal in 2016 was continuing to grow and strengthen.
  • After a multi-year fight, the nation’s pet food regulators adopted new rules to prohibit water buffalo and water buffalo ingredients to be deceptively marketed simply as “buffalo.”
  • New social media apps developed through assistance from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and Risk Management Agency assisted producers to connect with consumers, and effectively manage the health of their herds.

Then March hit.

The bison business was not immune to the disruption that hit farmers and ranchers across the country. As restaurants shuttered, the market for the high-end cuts of bison meat disappeared. Even as consumers began to reach out to bison ranchers to directly source meat for their freezers, the closure of the large meat processing facilities created a bottleneck at smaller-scale plants that forced those ranchers to face a months-long delay in being able to schedule their animals for processing.

Just as bison turn into storms, so, too did the National Bison Association face the challenges created by COVID-19.

After being deemed ineligible for relief under the two initial USDA Coronavirus Assistance Programs, persistent efforts by the NBA and its individual rancher-members convinced USDA to reverse positions in September and include bison producers. Similarly, a concerted effort by the association and its members convinced the USDA to agree to purchase $17 million in bison meat for use in federal food and nutrition programs.

Those two efforts are helping to create a new foundation upon which the bison business can rebuild stability and profitability. The outlook is bright.

In a recent full-day planning session, the NBA Board of Directors identified that aggressive efforts to expand the market for bison meat and price products is a top priority for 2021. This is the perfect time to accelerate those efforts.

The COVID pandemic has accelerated consumer interest in eating nutritious, delicious foods that are produced in harmony with nature. Those consumers are rapidly discovering bison meat as the perfect protein.  That’s one reason that we’ve trademarked the term, Bison: Regenerative by Nature.

Yes, 2020 was a stormy year. Chances are that the choppy waters will continue into 2021. But the NBA enters this new year with the capacity to expand efforts to connect the public with deliciously healthy bison, while continuing its leadership in the public policy arena.

The 2021 Winter Conference and Gold Trophy Show and Sale, relocated to Rapid City because of the postponement of this year’s National Western Stock Show, will have a much different look and feel from the normal gathering of NBA members. Whether you come in person or participate virtually, there is still a lot to celebrate as we move into the new year.