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Hunting for the bear market

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a four-part series following a year in the life of Bruce Tiffany, an entrepreneurial farmer who created wildlife treats from local commodities. Last spring, Tiffany mulled over what to give up — his livestock or his machinery repair business — to make time for his new venture. He’s decided to forgo repair: “I’ll just say ‘no’ more often and my customers will get the idea I’d like to quit.” Although Tiffany’s treats aren’t yet in the marketplace, he recently found an opportunity in the bear bait market that could supplement sales to deer and wild turkey hunters.

Ag Innovation News will continue to update our readers on Tiffany’s venture from time to time — so stay tuned.

Bruce Tiffany was stalking for deer when he landed a bear — the market, that is.

When he perfected his pelletized apple and corn wildlife treats last year, Tiffany was expecting to attract deer — and the people who hunt or photograph them. Then he noticed wild turkeys enjoying his treats. And when Ag Innovation News started writing about his business last January, an old college buddy who leads bear hunts near Clearbrook, Minn. called and suggested Tiffany try for bear.

So Tiffany designed a bear feed, sweeter and fattier than the deer treats. But with all the work to package and market his deer and wild turkey treats, he laid the bear bait aside.

At least until this summer, when his wife Ann saw a DNR-sponsored television ad about bear clinics coming in July and August. Tiffany got permission to hand out sample bags of bear treats at Twin Cities and Grand Rapids area clinics, and friends have taken the treats to events he couldn’t attend — in Clearbrook, Walker and Roseville.

A foot in bear clinics

“I believe it will open doors for us,” Tiffany said after attending his first bear clinic in Eden Prairie on July 26. “The good news is we now have 75 people in the Eden Prairie area who are thinking about our product — whether good or bad.”

At the clinics, following a DNR officer’s overview on bear biology, habits and hunting laws, a local volunteer instructor knowledgeable about bear hunting “finishes up with a ‘how-to’ on doing the hunt and caring for bait.

“Each (hunter) told about their favorite baiting methods — saving fish guts, putting out a pickup load of cookies, finding places to buy fat and lard. Then they pointed me out. I told them what I had, said some captive bears had shown a liking for it, and now I’d like to see how it works with wild bears.

“They had a lot of questions and were free flowing with their knowledge. They were all pretty impressed with getting what they need in a bag. They can grab one, two, 10 or 20 and head to the woods. And they don’t have a vehicle that smells like rotting fish guts.”

Twice the wild bears?

Although the deer hunting market is much larger than bear — there are about 400,000 deer hunters and fewer than 20,000 bear hunters in Minnesota — it is legal to bait bear during hunting season, and the bag limit was raised this year to two.

“(Bears) were nearly eradicated when there was no regulated hunting — you could hunt them at will,” Tiffany says. “But since (the 1970s) there’s been a limited season and licensed bear hunting and the population has grown — about double what the DNR wants it to be. It’s expected to get larger next year because food has been real plentiful.

“These (hunters) are people who respect the bears’ habitat and they have to try to figure out how to outsmart them. Bears like fat and sugar because they are getting ready for hibernation, so they have to take in as many calories as possible. Apparently what triggers the hibernation is when the food supply dwindles and they’re burning more calories than they’re consuming.”

Just be honest

Along with samples of bear treats, Tiffany has given out stamped return envelopes and surveys designed by Ann to solicit how the treats worked, if hunters would buy them and for how much, and if they would recommend the bait to other hunters and retailers. After the two-month bear season ends on October 14 and the surveys start coming back, Tiffany expects to get a better handle on his treats’ market potential.

“I’m hoping we get negatives if there are any; we want honest opinions. … It’s easy to give away products; turning that into customers who want to buy is something else — although I’ve had people ask if they could buy it. I said, ‘a year from now, you should be able to get it in a store, and if they aren’t carrying it, tell the store you want it.’ ”

Still playing with the brand

Tiffany is hoping to get his treats into the marketplace soon, but he wants to be careful to package them just right. Stunned by the price tag on bids he has received for printing labels, Tiffany realizes the design has to be exactly what he wants — or he could waste thousands of dollars on discarded labels.

If the bear market is promising, Tiffany will look at two or three treat varieties. His original label features a buck and wild turkey, but he may package separate treats for each game. And he’ll need a new design for the bear treats.

“It’s difficult to know where to position yourself,” Tiffany says. “People say ‘hire a market researcher.’ The problem is, there’s no product like it to compare it to.

“I don’t really have a goal in mind — a certain number that I want to sell by this date. Having a certain goal is not as important as being successful.”

Tiffany says he wants to stay open-minded and flexible to take advantage of opportunities he may not yet foresee.

“I don’t know how far this thing can go, but I think we can adapt.”