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Farmers' love of bison ranching prompts $4M gift to agricultural college

The owners of a bison ranch near Lacombe, Alta., have donated $4 million to Lakeland College to establish a bison herd at the school that will be used to teach the next generation of farmers.

'Bison has been good for us, and I think they could be good for the whole agriculture industry'

Bison ranchers Armin and Rita Mueller have donated $4 million to Lakeland College to help students learn more about the animals. (Supplied/Lakeland College)

The owners of a bison ranch near Lacombe have donated $4 million to Lakeland College to establish a bison herd at the school that will be used to teach the next generation of ranchers to work with the animals. 

Armin and Rita Mueller made the historic donation this week.

"I've had a lifelong fascination with bison," Armin Mueller told CBC's Radio Active on Wednesday. "I think we should have a lot more bison around in the future, so for us it's a perfect fit with the college."

Mueller grew up in Switzerland and as a kid loved reading books and watching movies about "the Old West." That's how he first discovered bison and developed an interest in an animal he calls "fascinating."

"I love everything about them," said Mueller, who co-owns Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk with his wife. "The way they graze out in the field, the way they move, the way they wallow. And the most I like them is on my plate. They're great [for] eating."

The Muellers' donation will be used to buy land, build facilities and purchase the bison needed to establish a herd at the college, said Geoff Brown, the school's associate dean of agricultural sciences.

"It was overwhelming," he said about the $4-million gift. "It's just amazing, the generosity and the support for agriculture." 

The college hopes to have the bison operation running for student participation by 2021. Students will learn how to manage the herd, and there will be opportunities for the college to collaborate on research projects with other schools and industry. 

Career switch to bison 

A few years after arriving in Canada, Mueller bought a dairy farm in Alberta. But around 2000, he realized he didn't want to spend the rest of his working days "milking those cows." None of his three children were interested in taking over the dairy.

"I said, 'What the heck?' Let's try something else.'"

So he went back to his childhood fascination with bison. The couple researched the animals and soon had about 200 huge, scraggly bison on their farm. Almost 20 years later, they have been so successful they were able to make the donation.

Armin Mueller says he's been fascinated by bison since he was a child. (Photo courtesy of Syncrude)

"We did well, and that's why I figured maybe it's time to give something back. Bison has been good for us, and I think they could be good for the whole agriculture industry."

Mueller said Lakeland was well-suited for the donation, with its location in the heart of bison country. He's excited the program could be used to further bison production and consumption in Canada and beyond.

"Our marketing has been lacking for the last 20, 30 years," he said. "In order to get better exposure for bison meat, across the country and around the world, we need to increase production.

"We have such a great story to tell about bison. They came back from almost extinction in North America. And the way they're raised up here is as close to natural as you can get. We interfere little and we let nature take care of them."

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