Family bison farm in northeastern Ontario celebrates 50 years
Bison du Nord has one of the largest bison herds in Ontario
Pierre Bélanger bought one female bison 50 years ago. Today, his family's herd near the northern Ontario town of Earlton is more than 400 animals strong.
As family farms continue to disappear across Canada, his three children have played an active role in the business.
"We spent a lot of time and effort structuring it and making it so that they could have a reasonable lifestyle, living with the bison and continuing to grow this herd," Bélanger said.
"We actually are naive enough to think we can make it for another 100 years and have a family farm that lasts with it."
In 1972, Bélanger was a member of the CANO artist co-operative based in Sudbury. The progressive rock band of the same name became an iconic fixture for Franco-Ontarian culture.
The co-operative bought a farm in Earlton and turned it into a commune. While most of the artists eventually returned to Sudbury, where their audiences were, Bélanger stayed at the farm.
"I had purchased one bison because we felt we should do something with the farm," he said.
"And it turned out that I like the animal as much as I like humans, and so I stayed behind and it just grew. We bought more animals, more bison, and just developed a love for the animal."
That farm became Bison du Nord, which supplies bison meat to butchers and restaurants across Ontario. Today, it has one of the largest bison herds in the province.
In the early days, Bélanger said, some of his farmer friends doubted he would be successful.
"They thought we didn't know what real work was," he said.
"And we said, 'We'll show you. We've got brains, we're smart, and we'll make money with this unusual animal, the bison.'"
Without any prior experience in farming, and a lot of mistakes along the way, Bélanger eventually built a successful family farm.
The bison herd grazes over his 263 hectares of land.
"We do rotational grazing, no growth hormones of course, no feedlots. These are range-fed year round, and so grass-fed certified and animal welfare certified."
Even selective breeding is done the old-fashioned way on the farm, without artificial insemination.
Growing interest in bison
Brian Arnold, president of the Ontario Bison Association, said bison farming is still relatively small in the province, but interest in the meat has grown in recent years.
Arnold said the association has 26 member farms, but estimates there are more than 30 bison farms in Ontario.
Most have herds of around 60 animals, but a few, like Bison du Nord, are larger with more than 400 bison.
"To the general consumer here in Ontario, it is kind of a newer thing that's becoming a little bit more mainstream, a little more accessible to the general population," Arnold said.
He said bison meat is more lean than beef, with around one-quarter of the fat.
People who are more healthy and environmentally conscious have been drawn to the bison meat, he said, because of the lower fat content and the farms aren't large corporate operations.
Arnold said his farm, located in Uxbridge northeast of Toronto, caters to a lot of athletes who are looking for beef alternatives.
"People are generally really impressed when they see how bison are raised in Ontario," he said.
With files from Markus Schwabe