At the heart of Tom and Carolyn Olson’s family business—a multigenerational endeavour they anticipate will grow for a couple of hundred years—is one crystal-clear goal: to revive an ancient species by persuading people to eat it.
It has been nearly 20 years since the Calgary tax lawyer and his wife and their 10 children started raising bison. The Olsons consider the meat from these ice-age survivors to be a kind of miracle food because the bison improve the landscape where they graze while benefiting the health of the people who consume it; the animals feed on native grasses and are leaner and less ecologically hazardous than beef cattle. Olson’s High Country Bison now encompasses four ranches and 50,000 acres in Southern Alberta, and includes a herd of about 4,000. The brand has a devoted following of environmentally conscious eaters and high-end chefs who are invited to roam among the bison.
Still, Olson predicts it will be two more years before the ranch turns a profit, in part because of the unconventional structure of the business. The Olsons eschew dealing with large retailers and have no interest in mass markets. Instead, they prefer direct sales to small retailers and individuals—a tougher route, to be sure, but one that Olson says allows the ranch to avoid compromising the ideals and ecological goals that will ultimately be critical to its success. Instead of stuffing their bison with grain and hormones and speeding them into commercial feedlots, Olson’s animals roam freely, growing naturally. As a result, supply isn’t always on-demand—sometimes clients have to wait for their order.
“They’re loyal because they almost become partners with us once they understand how we ranch,” Olson says. “There are certain people who are prepared to pay more because they believe the food is better for them, tastes better or is sustainable. For most of our clients, it’s a combination of all three.”
Year the Olson family began to build their dream: 1993 Total acres devoted to bison: 50,000 Bison that roamed North America in the 1800s: 70 million Bison in North America today: 500,000
1. Economic sustainability and morals are not incompatible. “Doing something profitable is not inconsistent with having a set of morals and beliefs. In the long term, this venture will be more profitable because of the fact that we cared about animal welfare, the conditions of the soils, the birds, the insects...the health of people who consumed our products.”
2. Look long. “The market measures profits on too short a scale. When we try to push profts by a quarter, a year or two years, and we become driven by that, it causes us...to start killing the geese that lay the golden eggs to get more food. If you’re in something for the long term, you’ve got to have long-term horizons."
3. Be your own market architect. The Olsons created their own niche market by seeking out chefs and foodies to hear their story. As the news spread by word of mouth, their product’s popularity grew.