Taking the Bull by the Horns
It takes a nimble company to grow through a global pandemic but that is what Noble Premium Bison, a western Canadian-based company, did after COVID-19 shut down international borders and halted the restaurant business.
But it didn’t always look promising. Things came to a sudden standstill when international borders closed. Kelly Long, owner of Noble Premium Bison, explains from her ranch in Millarville, Alberta.
“We just signed the final paperwork with Sysco, the food service company that would distribute our bison to restaurants across Canada. Everything was done and then the pandemic was announced. For a year, we didn’t sell a case to Sysco.”
Noble’s saving grace, however, was the strength of its retail partnerships. “As experienced by other meat producers, the retail market got really strong during the pandemic,” says Long. “When the food service industry fell off, we were prepared because we had product at retail.”
Carving out new markets during the pandemic
For customers, the shift in market focus opened the door wider for people to try bison. Earlier in the year, Sobeys started to carry Noble’s line of premium bison products in its grocery stores across Canada. Costco and other retailers followed suit. When the pandemic hit and people could no longer eat in restaurants, consumers picked up bison from their local grocery stores and Noble Premium Bison was ready.
“Bison did very well and it continues to be strong at retail,” says Long. “We found that when people were spending more time in the kitchen, they wanted to try new things, new recipes. It was a perfect opportunity for people to try bison as a protein option that is low in fat and high in nutrients.”Kelly Long, CEO and Partner
Throughout the pandemic, sales of fresh bison exported to Europe also continued. Despite the fact that Noble’s European sales were down 40 per cent overall, Noble’s clients in Europe continued to sell into retail and directly to consumers.
“Our business remained very stable. It was retail, though, that kept us going because we are diversified with retail in both Canada and Europe,” says Long.
Now, as restrictions across Canada ease, sales to restaurants and hospitality have increased as chefs work through any existing inventory and plan their post-pandemic menus.
“They’re buying good quantities of bison,” says Long, “because chefs are looking for ways to be unique and creative with their menu offerings.”
Bison becomes the ‘meat to beat’ at retail
According to Nielsen, the ratings and analytics company, bison meat retail sales grew 197 percent in 2020 in Canada.
“I really think that Noble had a substantial role in that growth,” says Long. “There wasn’t fresh bison meat at retail across Canada like there is now. Increasing the availability of bison meat to consumers is not only good for Noble, it’s good for the industry overall. Noble isn’t just about building its own brand. As bison producers and supporters of the Canadian Bison industry, we’re focused on building a category at retail that wasn’t there before.”
And that’s good for Canadian diets, economy, and agricultural industry, too. All of Noble’s premium cuts are from bison born and raised in Canada. Product is shipped to Canadian and European Union (EU) buyers. With a priority to maintain the highest standards for food safety and quality, Noble chooses to process its product in North Dakota. The only single species facility in North America dedicated to bison, the processing facility is also fully Safe Quality Food (SQF) certified for both EU and Canada.
“When Sobeys, Costco and other retailers place their orders, it takes only a few days before the product is shipped. All our steaks are hand cut and packaged. This helps to ensure an extreme level of freshness; for ground meat, it is ground the day it leaves the plant.”Kelly Long, CEO and Partner
Even though Noble uses a processing plant in the U.S. which then requires the Canadian company to have “Product of the U.S.A.” on its package label, 100 per cent of Noble bison meat is born and raised in Canada by Canadian ranchers. Long recognizes that the label can create some confusion. She explains.
“We use the plant located in North Dakota because of its specially-trained butchers, high food safety and animal welfare standards, and proximity to Canada. It’s a choice we feel we have to make to ensure Noble’s quality offering.”
“The promise of best quality and food safety standards are key to our success. We choose to use this plant because of its Good Food Safety Initiative, SQF certification and EU certifications. We are also able to do all the processing right at the plant; we don’t have to leave the plant to go somewhere else. If we processed in Canada, we would have to harvest and save up product to hit minimum runs at a big processor. We wouldn’t be able to process fresh every week like we do now. It’s the best option in North America right now.”
Ranch raised on Canadian grasslands
With Long at the helm of Noble’s contracting, marketing and distribution, her partner Doug Griller is in charge of raising and acquiring thousands of head of bison. Most of Noble’s herd is raised at Griller’s ranch in Quill Creek, Saskatchewan, and at another ranch he co-owns in Manitoba. Noble also partners with approximately 28 ranches located throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
Because supporting the environment is important to Noble, the company is careful to raise its bison on ranches that use regenerative grazing practices. While some farmers work to convert grassland acres into cultivated acres, Noble does the opposite. Griller takes high-quality cropland and turns it back to perennial cover to ensure the best source of grazing pasture for its bison.
“The quality of grass makes the difference in the quality of animals and the quality of product we produce,” explains Griller. “If the animals want for nothing and they are happy, the production goes way up. I am a firm believer in regenerating farmland back into grass. That is part of the reason my hay crop was sustainable this year, just because of some of the practices we have.”
And Griller’s philosophy holds water – even in this year’s prairie-wide drought. While most pasture and hay land acres have dried up, Noble herds are able to feed on natural grassland areas thanks to the use of regenerative grazing practices which includes rotational grazing. As part of maintaining environmental sustainability, Griller measures the amount of grassland cover, stages of grass, permeability and biodiversity of soil. “It is one thing to engage in best practices,” says Griller, “but we also want to be completely transparent about it.”
During the pandemic, we were determined to weather any potential storm. As it turned out, we were able sell more animals to market, build a whole new category at retail, and bring healthy bison meat to consumers right across Canada.Doug Griller, Producer and Partner
“We were able to keep our price for product stable,” says Griller. “We continued to support other producers by purchasing bison for the Noble program. In fact, I think we bought more. We could see the demand for Noble Premium Bison at retail increased almost immediately. Other marketers in North America were also seeing that jump in retail sales. To me, that meant that somebody had to backfill bison in the system and that is what we did. It was a guessing game at that point, and we didn’t know what effect it would have on crossing the border. As it turned out it had no effect. In fact, our flow of animals increased.”
“There was a bit of a drop in heifer pricing, however, our rail price on bulls stayed the same. In our operation and for the people we deal with, it was business as usual, in fact, our numbers went up.”
Thinking global, supporting local
Griller says support for local businesses is key to continuing a healthy rural, agriculture and bison industry across the prairies. Each year, Griller’s ranches buy 4-H steers to support the rural youth farm club. They also donate to local charity groups looking to raise money for different projects. Griller ranches buy fuel at their local fuel station, groceries in town and feed from three different feed mills.
“I think it’s important to keep the rural fabric of the Canadian prairies alive and you can only do that by supporting local businesses. We employ 15 to 20 people and they, in turn, support the local economy. What we generate here positively impact all the local communities Noble serves and beyond. It is not just what we support, and we are all for supporting local business, but it is all the other producers we buy animals from too. They support their local community as well. It’s what makes the economy thrive.”
Canadian producers/suppliers of sustainable bison meat, ranch-raised on native grassland. No hormones or antibiotics. Retail in 🇨🇦 DM for Foodservice