Arts & Life
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This article was published 29/3/2018 (940 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There was something about the resilient nature of bison that resonated with Trevor Gompf from a very young age.
A bison producer visited his Grade 4 classroom to talk about the animals, during which he presented students with a buffalo hide.
"I remember, right from there I fell in love with them," Gompf said, adding; "That’s what I wanted to do, it was always in the back of my head."
He achieved this dream at age 22, when he joined his family in securing 60 head of bison.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bison Spirit Ranch, which Gompf now operates with wife Jodi and their four boys, aged 21 and younger.
Situated a few kilometres north of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, the ranch is made up of approximately 1,200 acres, most of which is dedicated as grazing land.
Riding a gradual growth in the industry, interrupted by the a 2003 hit as a result of BSE, the ranch has grown to accommodate approximately 475 head of bison.
Motivated in part by "the love of the west," Gompf said that although the business has taken off during the past 20 years and evolved into something sustainable into the long-term, the bankers he dealt with weren’t always as confident as he’s been that the industry would take off.
Approximately 10 years in, Gompf recalls his banker remaining skeptical about his family’s bison ranch, remarking; "You’ve got bigger balls than me," adding that the livestock would never pay for themselves.
Now that they have, several times over, Gompf said that he’d be interested in offering a friendly "I told you so" to the banker.
Linked with a network of marketing companies, including Canadian Prairie Bison, North American Bison, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats and several others, they’ve found a steady list of buyers that ship their product throughout North America, where its meat is recognized for its health benefits.
Given the high price of bison meat, roughly twice that of beef, it remains a specialty market, which Obermaier’s Sausage and Meats owner Elliot Ryzner said typically caters to the more affluent members of society.
That, and the health conscious who are concerned about fatty meats.
It’s a far cry from barely being able to give it away in the early 2000s, he said. His shop takes on a few animals per year, as demand dictates, which they source from area producers.
Few, if any, local corporate grocer stores take on bison, he said, adding that his shop was only able to do so because they have a freezer program that prevents the high-cost product from going bad.
Gompf’s family fridge and freezer are understandably packed with bison products.
While they also consume pork products to mix things up a big, he said; "We definitely won’t have beef in our freezer."
With bison, the best means of preparation is a low and slow cook so you’re not pushing the juices out.
With marbling "pretty much non-existent" in bison meat, maintaining its natural juices is key.
Anything people typically do with beef can be done with bison, he said, adding that chilli is a popular dish in his household.
Pierson-area bison producer Brooks White said that he credits the lean, low-cholesterol meat’s health benefits as one of its key selling points, joining a sense of patriotism and history that drum up local interest.
Brandon restaurant The Dock on Princess ended its temporary Manitoba Menu in February, on which its bison burger was one of the more popular items.
"Any time you put a bison burger on the menu it’s going to fly off the shelf," sous-chef Darren Scribner said, adding that when people go out to a restaurant they’re oftentimes seeking a unique experience.
With the limited availability of bison on local store shelves, it has remained a special occasion dish for most people.
"I know a lot of people when they say ‘gamey taste’ they get turned off by it," he said. Even so, it’s a descriptor that fits, albeit with a "good tasting gamey."
The more well-done the meat is, the more of its gamey taste goes away, he said, but it’s all a matter of personal preference.
The Dock manager Jody Mead said that although the Manitoba Menu is now over, sales figures are pointing them to consider putting it on their permanent menu.
The future of bison production in Manitoba remains bright according to, Manitoba Bison Association President Nolan Miller with the current North American marketplace able to accommodate as much as 30 per cent more product without requiring any additional marketing.
"They can market it faster than we can grow the herd, so there’s big potential there for new producers to get in," he said, "We’re just trying to get the education out there to get more people involved raising bison."
At Bison Spirit Ranch, Gompf is looking at the long-term, and while he’s a ways off from retirement he’s already considering the possibility of passing the farm on to whichever of his four sons are interested.
It’s too early to say whether any of them would be interested, but it’s safe to say that Gompf will be make a strong case for it "I’m sure at least one of them will want to be there."
This next generation, aged four to 21, have already taken to opening gates and ear-tagging calves.
Bison ranching is an industry with high startup costs and long-term payoffs, one that lends itself best to multigenerational farming.
"The industry is growing rapidly in genetics, so we’re getting animals that are ready for slaughter in 18 months."
His cross of woods and plains bison allows for a greater genetic diversity that makes selective breeding efforts more effective. He’s constantly aiming to improve the quality of his stock, cognizant of the fact that whatever he does today will impact the family business for decades to come.
His current favourite breeding bull, Rock Star, is a four-year-old recognized for his gaining ability.
They’re a resilient animal — a "strong, sturdy animal that’s adapted to the rugged climate," Gompf said. They can "withstand elements that would just shut us down."
Looking over his field with admiration, Gompf is proud to have helped retain a small pocket of the pre-colonial prairie landscape.
Reestablishing this pre-colonial, traditional way of life is central for some Indigenous communities, whose leadership has been working toward re-introducing bison into their cultures.
Skownan First Nation has been integral to introducing wood bison to the northern Interlake region, where numbers now total a few hundred. But you don’t have to leave Westman to find a local herd.
Sioux Valley Dakota Nation has a herd of approximately 35 bison, and councillor Anthony Tacan said that taking care of them is a way of giving back to an animal that helped sustain his people’s ancestors. While they already include the bison in ceremony and healing, their longer-term goal involves growing the herd so they’re able to incorporate bison meat into their school’s lunch program.
Bison Vs. Buffalo
Bison are local to North and South America as well as Europe, while the two Buffalo species dwell in Africa and Asia. Bison and Buffalo share the same family, and yet there are more than 38 kinds of Buffalo. Considerable more Buffalo have been domesticated compared to Bison.
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