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If you build it

Ranchers and businesses at Williams Lake get together to set up a college program that’s great for students, and for local industry too

Program director Gillian Watt, sponsor Brian Garland and student Liam Dennison, winner of TRU’s 2020 award for ranch business.

A decade ago, Brian Garland, owner of the Cariboo Auto Group in Williams Lake, B.C., was troubled. Around him were hundreds of ranches, many of them large, successful and thriving. Yet their families had nowhere local to go to study the profession and prepare to continue in their families’ footsteps.

Garland’s own parents had met while studying agriculture, but to do that, they’d had to go to Alberta. “I thought to myself, here we are, almost 100 years later in B.C., and we’re still behind,” he says.

He wasn’t alone. Tom Dickinson, at the time dean of science at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Williams Lake, was thinking the same. “Back in 2004 we developed a regional innovation chair at TRU to do research on ranching and sustainability,” he recalls. It was directly after the challenges of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and the industry was really suffering.

“Ranching was an industry that needed help, and our research chair concluded we needed an academic program at TRU that would support young people who wanted to ranch as a career,” Dickinson says

Several local families had expressed their disappointment about having to ship their kids off to Alberta’s Olds College for ranching education.

“They said they wouldn’t do it if there was a university in the interior,” Dickinson recalls. “It’s different in B.C. than Alberta. Our industry is focused on cows and calves in contrast with the feedlot approach in the Prairies. So it was important to develop a B.C. model, made in B.C., for B.C. families.”

The local connection

Gillian Watt, currently program director at the applied sustainable ranching program, came on board to help design a tailor-made B.C. farming and ranching program that would include host ranches and a work-based learning model.

“Unlike the Prairies, where ranching is very homogenous, in B.C. we have river valleys and mountain ranges where the cows go in the summer. We have a lot of grass resource, but much of it is in our rangelands. So we have to know the value of looking after the rangelands and the environment in B.C., because the cattle are making protein from areas that cannot be cultivated.”

The builders of TRU’s applied sustainable ranching program got to work. In academia, Watt and Dickinson created course outlines, gathered faculty members and assembled an advisory board.

In the background Garland gathered together a group of likeminded business associates from the community, created a committee and focused on fundraising for a new agricultural diploma, sustaining it with bursaries and scholarships for students who couldn’t afford to attend.

“It’s produced young people who have themselves become leaders in the ranching industry,” Dickinson says. photo: Supplied

Five years since its inception, the applied sustainable ranching program at TRU is thriving. “Our program is unique in a number of ways,” says Watt. “We wanted it to be a very applied program, so we arranged for students to gain experience on host ranches where they’re learning from ranchers at the same time as doing their academics.”

Unexpected value for ranchers

Course work is comprised of building blocks to help each student build a final business and operations plan, with the assumption that someday they will own or manage their own farms or work in the support industries. Enterprise management, or the financial aspect of ranching, is included in every course in the program. “We always look at the numbers and insist students do a gross margin analysis,” says Watt. “We also focus on soils, regenerative agriculture principles and how the students can potentially weave those into their operations, for example, how to build organic matter into our soils, rather than deplete them.”

Some 35 ranches participate as host ranches in the program, with students living and working on the ranch in exchange for room and board. One of them, David Zirnhelt, sits on the industry advisory board for ASR and maintains that the host program has been mutually beneficial.

“We had a student that came from a pig farm and when we introduced pigs on our ranch she offered to tag them for us,” he recalls. “She handled them gently and put the ear tags on while they ate. It’s a small thing, but it reminds us that we don’t have all the experience with all the livestock on the ranch.”

Another student, who hailed from Germany, had the technological ability to map Zirnhelt’s farm, a requirement for a water development initiative that would provide irrigation and water pasture for intensive grazing. “The map he put together helped us with our funding proposal,” he says.

A third student took forage samples at a time when Zirnhelt’s cows were having reproduction challenges. “Part of her beef course included a nutrition module, and she inserted our data and presented it to the instructor,” he points out. “The nutritional suggestions she came back with helped us turn that challenge around. It turned out we’d been putting the cattle under pressure to graze for a much longer season to save on the cost of feeding hay. We learned that when you do that, reproduction performance can suffer.”

Having the applied sustainable ranching program in Williams Lake benefits a far wider circle than just the students taking the courses, Zirnhelt reflects. “By providing an influx of students into our ambit we have a source of part-time labour as well as inspiration to ranchers. Human resources is scarce in agriculture, and this program helps us as an industry to put our best foot forward. We’re connected to the knowledge base of the sector, we’re developing ranch managers, workers and owners, and the program gives us the innovative edge we need to stay current and profitable.”

Students come from a variety of backgrounds, Watt says, but they develop and share a commitment to agriculture. photo: Supplied

You only have to look at the program graduates to gauge its success. One of them, Kristelle Harper, 26, graduated last year and is now launching her business of regeneratively produced products. “I entered the program to take over operations of my family’s ranch in southern Manitoba, Circle H Farms, and also to become more comfortable with the finances of the business,” she says.

A fourth-generation farmer, the course gave her the confidence to run gross margin analyses and ensure an enterprise would be a strategic fit for her life and operations. “My family is so happy knowing I now have the ability to run the financials and keep the farm stable for future generations,” she says.

A business core

“I think this is a one-of-a-kind program that delivers so much hands-on learning and networking,” Harper says. “The network I’ve developed of fellow producers, ranchers in B.C. and industry personnel is unbelievable, and it was great to be able to ask questions from people in the industry and find out the pros and cons of my business idea before even launching it.”

Back in 2015, when the ASR program launched, Zirnhelt said the ranchers recognized they needed to learn from a new, tech-savvy generation. “Our students at TRU have that,” he reflects. “The course we offer is not just about running 500 head of cattle, but includes business, diversification and adding value to food products. A broader view of agriculture is implicit in the program.”

It’s helped breathe fresh air and new life into the local ranching industry, agrees Watt. “It’s exciting seeing this number of young people who are really wanting to make a career in agriculture. This year we have 20 students and they come to the Cariboo to experience the farming business up here. It means people who in the past have been short on labour now have students keen for work experience. Once they graduate they can be snapped up for full-time work.”

Garland, a senior auto dealer who works quietly in the background, continues to fundraise for the program. “You only have to go to McDonald’s to know that the ranchers feed us,” he says. “They are made up mostly of family ranches and provide large numbers of jobs in the Cariboo Chilcotin. We recognize that and want to advance and perpetuate that industry.”

Garland’s work is invaluable, says Watt. “Brian is one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met, a community builder who is so passionate about people and doing good for his community. He’s got a very sharp business mind, he understands the importance of a university and what it brings to a community, and whenever we need anything, from advice to scholarships to a guest lecture on human resource management, he provides it. He truly recognizes the importance of the agriculture industry to our region.”

Dickinson, who retired from Thompson Rivers University in June 2020, is proud of the innovative, creative and adaptable program he supported and helped create. “We got it on the books quicker than any other program I developed in 11 years as dean,” he points out.

“It greatly strengthened the connection we have with the cattle industry, and it’s produced young people who have themselves become leaders in the ranching community. They’re in their thirties, but I hear their names mentioned and realize with pride that we’ve created the leaders of tomorrow.”

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