In the 1890s there were less than 1000 Woods and Plains bison left of the millions that had shaped the land and the culture of North America for millennia. Today a herd of 170 in Black Creek is giving farmer Marc Vance reason to pinch himself every morning.
“I grew up wanting to be a rancher,” he says. Several years ago his Vancouver-based closet organizer business took him on a detour down a country road in Black Creek. A year later he, his wife and four children, as well as his mother and father in law made the move. “My wife calls it my mid-life crisis. I needed a new challenge.”
Today Marc and his extended family own and operate one of the largest meat producers in the Comox Valley. As well as the bison, the Vance’s also have 70 water buffalo. They purchase the bull calves from two Island dairies, including McLintocks here in the Comox Valley. They’ve also recently added Highland and Black Angus cattle, as well as heritage pigs, and chickens.
The animals are principally raised for meat, but the farm produces additional products. Bison tallow is used to create hand creams and soaps. Bison, water buffalo, beef, and pork are used in sausages, dried meat sticks, and jerkies. The farm also sells bison hides and skulls. These are also donated to some First nations’ groups for drum making and ceremonial purposes.
With the exception of hides and skulls, all of the farm’s products are available at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market. And while the Market is not a large part of the Farm’s sales, it is very important to the Farm’s business model.
“The Market is the root of Island Bison Farm,” Marc says. “It’s thanks to the Market that so many people have tried our product. Retail stores are now approaching us, and we’ve started a wholesale business as well.”
The expansion into chickens, pork, and beef last year was facilitated by the Market. Most producers only have one table, but Island Bison needed two to show and sell their new products.
“Our goal is to help farmers grow their business,” says Market CEO Vickey Brown. “When Island Bison needed more room, we were happy to help make that happen. It’s a good thing for them, for Market shoppers – and for our local food economy.”
Like other farmers at the Market, last year’s drought was tough on Island Bison. Marc says the weather is the single largest challenge they face. “It’s the big unknown. Last summers’ drought was very tough on pastures and winter feed production.” The current dry spell suggests things won’t be any easier this year.
Nevertheless, Marc relishes every day on the ranch. It’s the realization of a childhood dream. And, he says, “It’s also a wonderful way for the family to be together.”
This is part of the series of Comox Valley Farmers’ Market producer profiles. Buying local food and supporting local farmers is one of the best and most direct ways to grow our Comox Valley economy.
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(cc) May 2015