In Uxbridge, Ontario, one family and their community have been doing their part to help boost the bison population.
“You can make a small fortune farming if you start with a big one.”
Thunder Ridge Bison Company owner, Brian Arnold, smiles as he offers this quip. I’ve just asked him if bison farming is lucrative. “Or even financially solvent,” I’d quickly added after realizing how absurd my question was. I’d grown up around farms and farmers and, while not from an agricultural family myself, I’d learned enough to know that ‘lucrative’ was not an adjective commonly used to describe that industry.
It’s just after 5 p.m. on one of the last summer evenings of the year. The air is butter soft and my daughters, who’d begged to come with me to the farm, have bounced off to check out the chickens. Brian’s wife Michelle, who also runs the farm, is at the coop. He shuts the gate to the bison pasture and he and I walk back to his front porch.
We’d just visited his herd of 40 bison—a privilege considering there are currently no public tours of the farm due to the pandemic. My daughters had squealed with delighted disgust when the bison voided their bowels and bladders upon our approach.
“Do you know why they do that?” Brian asked the girls.
Pinching their noses between their fingers, they shook their heads.
“Because they are a prey animal, so when they see a predator—or something they think is a predator, like us—they release their urine and feces to help them run faster, in case they need to.”
“Ew,” was my eldest daughter’s nasal reply. My youngest daughter stopped pinching her nose and started sucking her thumb thoughtfully.
Brian pointed out a female bison who was eyeing us. Barely visible on her other side was her calf. Earlier in the week, the calf had sustained a minor injury after becoming caught in some trees. “Fine now,” he assured, “but still not walking normally quite yet. The mother will charge us if we get too close.”
We keep our distance, seated safely in a side-by-side or a utility task vehicle (UTV). The mother cow moves off, holding us in her peripheral vision; her baby maintains a tight, umbilical circumference. And yes, a slight limp too.
The Arnolds are members of The Canadian Bison Association. One of the association’s main goals is to put one million bison back in North America by 2028.
“When European settlers came, the bison were hunted for sport. It was part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” Brian explained. The bison were hunted to the brink of extinction to try to starve out the Indigenous peoples. Within a few decades, the bison population went from 60 million to less than 1000. He exhales a deep breath after relaying this information; the weight of it hangs over the rambling field. We’re on a hill overlooking the town of Uxbridge, Ontario and it seems cathedral quiet, save for cricket chirps and the occasional huff of a bison.
“But will you? Reach that goal, I mean?”
Brian nodded, his good-natured smile returning. “Things are looking good.”
As of now, thanks to the conservation efforts of farms like Thunder Ridge, there are almost 150,000 bison in Canada.
Bison are resilient. They are an exceptionally rejuvenative species that can efficiently turn the grasses they eat into energy. They eat, poop, and stomp seeds back into the soil, enriching the soil and the land. This is thought to have been one of the reasons bison survived after the ice age on the grassy plains, whereas saber-toothed tigers and mammoths did not.
Brian says he has always loved farming, having grown up on a farm. But it wasn’t until some deaths in the family that the couple decided it was time to stop putting off their dreams. In 2015, they moved their three children to Uxbridge and established Thunder Ridge Bison Co.
“It was probably my dream more than Michelle’s,” he admits as we settle down to chat on the porch. “She’s a city girl at heart.”
“I’d like to live by the mall,” Michelle laughs, joining us. Looking at her, perched on the arm of her husband’s chair, her hair a near perfect reflection of the honey-bee light of late summer, I can’t help but think that she seems a natural extension of this place. It’s a refuge.
The Arnolds admit as much. Brian is a police officer. He’s worked with high-risk offenders; escapees, parole violators, sex offenders, and so on. Michelle is a kindergarten teacher. Both have stressful, public-sector jobs, made even more stressful by the pandemic era in which we now live.
“Could you quit, and just live off the farm?” I ask.
Brian laughs and repeats the first part of the adage: You can make a small fortune farming…
Yet in so many ways, Brian and Michelle are acutely aware of their immense fortune.
He tells me a story. One day in their farm’s store, half a dozen people stood around, talking, exchanging recipes and phone numbers. “These people hadn’t known each other before they came here, but food, and where our food comes from, creates a sort of community and connection. So many people are disconnected from their food sources these days.”
The Arnolds are trying to bridge that gap. Their farm store, which is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., sells bison, wild boar and elk meats, as well as honey, tea and hot sauces. All the products are local and are the result of rejuvenative farming.
The Thunder Ridge store has a note-worthy range of customers. From urban hunters to health nuts to ecologically conscious foodies to chefs of celebrities and celebrities themselves—and even the Toronto Maple Leafs—what all these people have in common, Brian says, is that they are educated. They prioritize health; not only the planet’s, but their own.
Bison is lower in cholesterol than other meats. It is also rich in: amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, iron, zinc and B12. Additionally, bison meat has less fat and calories than beef and is higher in protein.
Pre-COVID times, Thunder Ridge used to host sausage-making classes and information sessions. Brian says they were popular. “We’d start in the store and have a drink, then head out to the pasture and talk about the bison; again, connecting people to where their food comes from. Then we’d come back and have a chef lead the class,” he said.
It’s their intention to resume these classes when circumstance permits. In the meantime, the Thunder Ridge website remains an excellent source of information for people looking to learn about bison and bison farming practices. And the store is open on Saturdays if you want to stop in.
In fact, according to the Arnolds, the store has been busier than ever since COVID-19. People want to know where their food comes from and are trying to avoid situations where their food moves through many different hands.
On our way home that night, I stop to get the girls dinner at a drive-thru. After doling out their burgers, I mention that I’m going to have to go back to Thunder Ridge when the store is open to get some bison steaks.
There’s silence from the back seats. I glance into the rearview mirror to see both my daughters looking horrified.
“Meat?!” my eldest shrieks through a mouth full of ground beef. “You mean people eat them?”
Indeed, educating people about their food sources seems timelier than ever.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction, Fuse, coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in Spring 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter.
All photos courtesy of Thunder Ridge Bison Company.