Getting the Elk Industry Back on Track

The elk farming industry in North America is in the doldrums. Worse still, no one or no organization seems willing to do anything about it! Elk producers – those who are still left – seem to be sitting around waiting for things to improve. Many are hoping for the return of the good old days when prices for breeding stock and velvet were high, and the animals and velvet antler sold without much effort.

Well, it’s time for the industry to wake up and get its butt into gear! Waiting and doing nothing is NOT an acceptable option. We need to manage our future to achieve the results we want. Results take time, so we better start right now if we want to be masters of our own destiny.

Since no one else is stepping up to the soapbox, I will. Here is my prescription for what the elk industry needs to do to return to being a sustainable and profitable agricultural venture.

Vision and plan

I have not yet seen a coherent or well-articulated vision for the elk farming industry in Canada or the United States – one which defines who we want to be. What is the ideal scenario for elk farming? What do we want our industry to be; what don’t we want it to be?

Without a vision or destination outlining where we want to go, how on earth can we do the right things to get there? Without a vision, we are forever destined to undertake random and ad hoc activities, or worse still, we do nothing because we don’t know what to do!

To me, a vision does not have to be complicated. What aspects of the industry do we want to focus on – breeding stock, velvet antler, hunting preserves, venison, and/or other products and services? What target markets are we going after – health food, pets, restaurants? Are we going to focus our marketing efforts in North America or Asia?

Once we have an agreed-upon vision, then we need a business plan. The vision is the “what” we want to achieve; the plan is the “how” we want to get there. I really find it disconcerting that the national industry organizations have not developed and communicated a long-range business plan. As well as being a great “to-do” tool, a business plan also communicates to all stakeholders where the industry is going. It is an effective tool for setting priorities for the use of limited resources in order to get the greatest return for effort and investment. A business plan is also a good way to hold board members and executive accountable.

Therefore, the first step to getting the elk industry back on track is to develop a vision and business plans for both Canadian and American producers. The two plans should be distinct and appropriate to their jurisdictions, but also coordinated where common initiatives make sense.

Organization

The industry needs both state/provincial and national associations because, in both Canada and the United States, agriculture is governed mostly by state/provincial regulations and legislation.

In the United States, there should be ONE national cervid association representing all deer, elk, and reindeer producers. The American Cervid Council (ACC) should have an office in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress and the USDA on a regular basis. The ACC should be an umbrella organization representing all the state organizations. Board members for the national association would be selected from state boards. Part of the membership fees for the state cervid organizations would be forwarded to the ACC for its operations and programs. Thus, every deer and elk farmer who is a member of their state association is automatically a member of the national association. This arrangement, similar to the Canadian Cervid Council, reduces competition for members, and improves co-operation and communication among the various levels of industry associations.

Discussions will need to take place between the ACC and the state associations about the appropriate roles and responsibilities for each of the following:

  • lobbying and influencing decisions on regulations and legislations
  • recruitment of new members into the industry
  • communications and publications – for members, stakeholders, and the general public
  • membership development – conferences, workshops, training materials, etc.
  • member services such as animal registrations, tags, and DNA testing
  • quality assurance and branding
  • plans, promotion, and support for research and development
  • promotion and marketing of the industry and its products and services
  • fund raising

Following are some suggestions for improved governance, management, and leadership of the elk producer organizations:

  1. Change association bylaws to permit additional outsiders to serve on the boards. External board members will bring considerable specialized expertise to the organization, will enhance credibility, and will provide important links and/or access to external resources.
  2. The same directors should serve on state/provincial boards and national boards. This will improve communication and the co-ordination of activities.
  3. Consider giving your board members an orientation and some professional development. Running effective volunteer organizations can be extremely challenging. Provide your board members with the knowledge and skills to help them do a better job.
  4. Producers must be reminded that if they are acting as board members, they MUST perform in the best interest of all the members, not just their own self-interest. In fact, they are legally liable if they violate this trust.
  5. Make use of specialized expertise – legal, financial, media, business – when appropriate. Share the costs across several associations if you can’t afford to do this yourself.
  6. If your association is large enough, hire a good executive director and staff, and let them do their jobs. Give them the resources and don’t meddle in the day-to-day operations. Stay out of the way!
  7. Provide incentives, rewards, and support to your board members and staff. Appreciate and commend their good work and efforts. Try to remove any obstacles that may get in the way of them doing their assigned tasks.
  8. Manage and direct your organization based on your business plan. Get on with doing your priority tasks to achieve your goals and objectives. Of course, if you don’t have a business plan, you will run your association on an ad hoc and reactionary basis.
  9. You should develop and implement a set of performance indicators to monitor the progress and success of your organization. These measures of success can also be used to demonstrate accountability to your members, government, and other stakeholders.

Finally, elk farmers should NOT expect their state/provincial or national associations to do it all. Producers, individually or in groups, should examine other organizational models to get things done. The alternatives include:

  • regular or new-generation co-ops
  • commissions (where everyone is required to belong)
  • value chains
  • private or public incorporated companies

Financial

All organizations need money to be effective. The more money that is available, the more that can be achieved.

Associations need funds for:

  • administrative, office, and operational expenses
  • programs and services
  • lobbying and legal expenses
  • research and development activities
  • communications with members, external stakeholders, and the public
  • general marketing and promotion

There are a number of potential sources of revenue that elk industry associations can tap into:

  • membership fees (primary source)
  • conferences and workshops
  • service fees from tag sales, registrations, DNA testing, etc.
  • advertising in association newsletters, publications, and events
  • sales of items such as clothing, books, and signs
  • donations of cash and products (e.g., semen)
  • fund raising activities such as auctions and raffles
  • grants and government funding
  • foundation grants
  • joint ventures and partnerships

Some suggestions regarding the financial management of associations follow:

  1. All associations should prepare an annual budget and monitor it closely. If revenues are seasonal or cyclical, then monthly cash flow projections should also be prepared and used.
  2. Compared to other sectors, elk producer membership fees are low; however, members must see value and a return on their investment before they will pay more.
  3. A greater effort must be made to tap into external funds. Members should not be the only contributors. Associations should aggressively go after government funds, grants, and donations from suppliers and individuals.
  4. Associations should prepare a fund-raising plan and assign a committee or group to implement it.
  5. Associations should learn how to get donations from the public at large by studying the strategies of Public Television (PBS) and PETA. Make it easy to donate e.g., via real-time credit card payments on your websites; offer a benefit for donating, e.g., a free subscription to your newsletter; request donations for specific causes that the public may support, e.g., CWD research.
  6. Incorporate project tracking into your accounting programs. Allocate revenues and expenses against projects and initiatives. The board and members will know where the money is spent, and the value that is received.
  7. All non-profit organizations are hurting when it comes to financial resources. Competition for donations is fierce. If elk associations are to be successful, they must have a well-thought-out fund-raising plan that is executed aggressively.

Research and development

When things got tough, the elk industry seemed to lose interest in research. Research must be ongoing for the long-term benefit of the industry. Here are some of my thoughts on this topic.

  1. There must be a North American elk industry research and development plan that includes annual priorities. Research and development is very expensive. Therefore, the industry must work together to initiate and support those projects that will provide the greatest return. I believe that the priorities should be on market research to develop North American markets for elk products. Producers need renewed sales and positive cash flows.
  2. There are at least three major research projects currently underway – all related to velvet antler.
    • Dr. Marian Allen is doing a study on the effects of velvet antler on rheumatoid arthritis sufferers
    • Dr. Susan Hemmings at the University of Saskatchewan is doing a study of velvet antler and its impact on the liver
    • Dr. Jacque Dupuis has completed a study on the effects of EVA on dogs with arthritis (Canadian Veterinary Journal, Feb. 2004)
  3. The Elk Research Council (and equivalent organizations) needs to take a more aggressive role in finding interested researchers, obtaining research grants, initiating and managing research projects, and disseminating research findings.
  4. A plan and/or model need to be developed to provide ongoing funds for industry research and development projects and initiatives.
  5. Associations need to ask government departments (Agriculture, Economic Development) and universities/colleges to do more research for them. I have had good success in asking government staff to undertake market research studies at their expense. As an industry, we need to do more of this!
  6. I believe the following should be the top research priorities for the next five years:
    • Velvet antler and dogs – this represents the single greatest potential to create a huge North American market for velvet antler. Possible studies could include comparison of effectiveness of EVA with other arthritic medications and possible contraindications with glucosamine.
    • Assisted reproductive technologies to permit the greater transference of genetics across closed borders without having to move live animals.
    • Continue with liver studies since initial positive results of these studies provide hope for dealing with liver diseases (for which there are no current treatments).
    • Wound healing – there is some evidence that EVA does promote healing. These studies would be relatively easy to do, and market potential would be significant.
  7. I would NOT recommend spending any industry research dollars on CWD. Tens of millions of government research projects are currently underway as well as a number of private initiatives. We are better off spending our limited research funds on developing products and markets.
  8. Everyone in the industry needs to do much more to get the research results out to our potential customers, the key stakeholders, and the media.

Communication and information

We cannot over-communicate! A message has to be repeated numerous times before most people hear it.

Communication and information must be provided to:

  • current members of the association or organization
  • potential and past members
  • other state/provincial and national associations
  • information gatekeepers such as agriculture department staff, veterinarians, and government officials
  • trade and general media.

Here are some other observations:

  1. Lack of information about what is going on is the most common complaint among industry association members. Regardless of what the board or executive does, a large number of members claim not to have been informed or consulted.
  2. Multiple channels should be used to get the information out as all individuals have their preferred modes of receiving information. Associations should use newsletters, mailings, e-mail, websites, discussion forums, meetings, magazines, faxes, and any other method available.
  3. Many people use the Internet as a source of information, yet most associations do not bother to post or keep their websites current. Over the past few years, the traffic to all elk industry association sites has decreased significantly.
  4. Communications technologies such as chat rooms, forums, and group software should be used to reduce the obstacles of time and distance. These tools can be used to share information among associations and their members, co-ordinate strategies, and work together on projects/initiatives.
  5. Some associations hoard information in the false belief that only their paid members should have access to it. This creates obstacles to working co-operatively together on the large issues for the benefit of all industry stakeholders.

Education and awareness

Most of the public and many government and elected officials are still not aware that elk farming exists as an agricultural pursuit; therefore, awareness and education strategies must include these target audiences as well as the elk producers themselves.

  1. Education for industry members involves:
    • production and management of skills/competencies
    • maintaining a positive image of the industry
    • contributions for the overall growth and development of the industry
  2. Awareness and education for information gatekeepers includes:
    • state/provincial and university agricultural staff
    • veterinarians and their associations
    • pharmacists and their associations
    • other health care professionals
    • chefs and food industry decision-makers
    • nutraceutical and health food stores

These gatekeepers should have easy access to sources of information and resources.

Initiatives for the general public and potential consumers should include:

  • awareness and information about elk farming as an acceptable and environmentally-friendly agricultural pursuit
  • accurate information and positive messages for teachers and students

Elk velvet antler should become as well known as other common over-the-counter nutraceutical and health food products.

The general public should have easy access to reliable and comprehensive information about the elk industry and its products.

It is important to stress that elk products are produced to the highest quality control standards.

It is important to inform the public that farmed elk are well looked after and are not abused or harmed in any way.

When educating politicians, legislators, and bureaucrats, please keep the following points in mind:

  • Keep the rules and regulations on a level playing field with other livestock industries.
  • These people typically respond better to “wining and dining” than to bullying and threats of lawsuits.
  • Emphasize economic and agricultural diversification benefits for the state or province.
  • Find and use a “champion” on the other side to plead and promote your case.
  • Keep these people well informed about what you are doing and planning to do; they don’t like surprises.
  • You will make it a lot easier for them to support you if you provide them with “briefing notes” that accurately and clearly lay out the facts, issues, alternatives, and implications.

Marketing and promotion

I have come to the conclusion that elk associations should stick to general promotion of the industry and its products. There are too many inherent conflicts of interest and risks for the directors if involved in actual marketing activities.

Private companies or co-ops should market genetics, velvet antler, venison, and by-products.

The appropriate marketing roles and responsibilities of industry associations include:

  1. Quality assurance and branding – this involves providing producers with a QA seal that they can use, and promoting the brand.
  2. Compiling and publishing up-to-date lists of member vendors, e.g., those who are selling velvet antler, meat, and other products.
  3. Representing the industry at key trade shows such as farm fairs, health food, and consumer shows.
  4. Keeping key gatekeeper groups such as veterinarians, pharmacists, naturopaths, and dog clubs informed about the industry, new research, and products.
  5. Organizing and participating in food festivals and other special related events.

It would be helpful if marketing and promotional activities were better coordinated among national and state/provincial associations, vendors, and individual producers.

The national associations, subject to successful fund-raising as described previously, should consider establishing a marketing assistance fund to help local organizations undertake initiatives that will benefit the whole industry.

Market research studies and evaluation reports should be shared among the associations and companies so that everyone can do a better job of marketing.

Search, identify, and take advantage of various government assistance programs and resources available for market research and marketing ventures. For example, how many of you have taken advantage of the services provided by your embassies in foreign countries to promote your velvet and elk meat?

Implementation and execution

So what are you going to do now? Are you going to file away this newsletter and wait for someone else to rescue the industry? Or are you going to take on one small project, either yourself, or with a group of other elk farmers?

If each one of us volunteers to do one simple project, just think how much we could collectively accomplish! I plan on continuing to do everything I can to get the elk farming industry back on track. How about you?