Organic, grass-fed, all-natural: according to Pierre Bélanger, these are often nebulous terms.
“Everybody claims to be natural or to use biological farming practices,” said the owner and founder of Earlton bison ranch Bison du Nord.
“But there are all kinds of farmers who use loopholes and claim to be grass-fed. For example, they might feed their animals grain during the last month to fatten them up or restrict their movement by fencing them into very small pens."
That's why Bélanger and his family sought third-party accreditation to validate their claims.
In January, Bison du Nord received two certifications from A Greener World (AGW), an independent American organization that promotes verified and sustainable farming practices. They have a portfolio of certifications that they offer to farmers.
After a number of lengthy surveys and a full-day physical audit, the bison ranch became Certified Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Grassfed by AGW.
“It's a great way to start the new decade. We have really always ranched our bison this way, but this certification validates that for the general public,” said Bélanger.
“We want a very good, strong, positive, and ethical image for our ranch.”
Bison du Nord was established by Bélanger and his father in 1972. The rancher has now partially passed on the family business to his three children.
Charles, his son, works full time on the ranch. His daughters are in charge of social media and marketing.
They ranch on 570 acres of land, and their herd currently consists of about 300 bison. Each year, they market roughly 100 animals. And bison are big – according to Bélanger, the average slaughter produces about 500 lbs of meat.
The family strives for a “holistic” practice. This philosophy applies to every aspect of their business.
“We want to achieve balance with the environment, our land, and the animals,” said Bélanger. “But it also applies to our personal lives. This has to be a self-sustaining ranching practice, which means it has to produce enough to sustain itself and grow, and adapt over time.”
The certification process is quite thorough.
It covers every aspect of a husbandry practice including handling and transporting animals, the use of antibiotics and medication, the use of growth hormones, feeding practices, and more.
The ranch prides itself on its humane approach.
Their bison are run as a herd, which means they aren't confined or separated by age class. They have enough space to manifest their natural, social habits.
“Bovines, and bison in particular, are social animals,” Bélanger said. “There's a social hierarchy in the herd, and there are practices the young calves learn from their parents.”
One example of this is called a buffalo wallow, where the animals take a mud or dust bath to ward off flies.
Bison du Nord's herd reproduces itself; they use no artificial insemination. Their property is large enough to provide ample grazing opportunity and adequate wind shelter.
“Shoppers today want to know their purchases have a positive impact, and are informed enough to demand more than marketing spin. A Greener World’s third-party audited certifications deliver real transparency, helping consumers vote with their fork to reward sustainable farming practices," said Emily Moose, director of communications at A Greener World.
"Certification from A Greener World is a concrete, straightforward way for farms and business to demonstrate that they’re ‘walking the walk,’ giving customers confidence their choices have real benefits for people, animals and the planet.”
The certifications will go a long way towards helping Bison du Nord market their meat in butcher shops across Ontario.
But the ranch's commitment to sustainability goes beyond that.
This year, by participating in a Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance and Ontario Federation of Agriculture pilot project, they will divert 2.5 tonnes of plastic from landfills by compacting and recycling their used silage bale wrap with a device manufactured by U-Pac Agri Service, a company located in Picton.
They also have an Environmental Farm Plan through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.
Bison du Nord began welcoming guests for tours of their property last summer (something they plan to do again this year). They sell bleached bison skulls, often painted by local artists, to customers around the world. The ranch also sells breeding stock to anyone interested in growing or starting their own herd.
The Bélanger family is well-known in northeastern Ontario.
Laurent Bélanger, Pierre's father, was the original founder of Earlton RV. Pierre helped to establish the Canadian Bison Association and the Ontario Bison Association a few decades ago.
The ranch supports the local and provincial food scene in Ontario and Québec. In 2016, they won the People's Choice Award for their barbecue bison slider at the Foire gourmande de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue et du Nord-Est Ontarien, in Ville-Marie, Que.
Their harvest is available at locations throughout Ontario, including Tarini Bros. Meat Market in Sudbury.