A young Foothills rancher was left speechless when he found out he won an annual competition for excellence in the agricultural industry.
Ben Campbell of Tullichewan Ranch was named the 2022 Outstanding Young Farmer for the Alberta/NWT Region by the Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers Program, during a two-day event in Red Deer, from March 17-18.
“I’m not normally speechless, but I was totally speechless,” said the 37-year-old ranch operator.
The judges said they had unanimously selected a winner, and that it was a close competition.
“I thought well at least I was in the running, at least it was close," he said.
When they announced he was the winner, he was in total shock.
The Outstanding Young Farmer Program is an annual competition where nominees are judged in several categories. There are seven regions in the program, and each year, one farmer from each region is selected to represent their respective region at the National Recognition Event. Farm operators between the ages of 18 to 39 are eligible.
Campbell said judges look at things like growth in the farm, environmental stewardship, community involvement, and farm finances.
Three farms, including Campbell’s, were nominated, and the other nominees were excellent, he said.
Some of the previous winners had cattle herds in the thousands, which is quite different than the operation Campbell runs with his wife, Steph.
“I was sure I wasn’t going to win, because I’m so new and we aren’t a really big farm,” he said.
In 2013, Campbell entered the agriculture industry with four cattle and rented space on a farm, and the operation grew quickly, he said. He now runs a herd of about 300 animals on the 1500-acre ranch.
The ranch is run in a sustainable and ethical way, and his interest in environmental sustainability began before he got involved in the agriculture industry.
He was an engineer before he changed gears into ranching, and was a vegetarian in university, which was a decision he said he made for environmental reasons.
“I always wanted to do something that was good for the environment and good for people," he said. "I didn't know what that would be.”
Campbell and his wife, Stephanie, had returned from Zambia, where Ben worked with a non-profit and Steph in a hospital.
A friend told him that cattle grazing is good for the environment and Ben thought that sounded interesting.
Although he grew up on a ranch, Campbell said he was not a ranch kid, and his dad was not involved in the ranch growing up. Ben and Steph ranch on the farm north of Black Diamond that was started by Ben’s grandfather, John, in the 1950’s.
“My grandfather and I both came here not knowing anything about agriculture, and so we started from scratch," he said.
Cattle ranching turned out to be a good fit with Campbell’s interest in sustainability and the environment.
“It’s not that the ranch is for cattle, but I use cattle as a management tool to keep the ranch ecosystem healthy," he said. "I sort of view it like this is a national park, and I’m a park ranger, and I’m just managing the natural ecosystem.”
Grasslands evolved with grazing animals, and there is a mutually beneficial relationship between land and animal.
When the animals graze, they increase biodiversity. Campbell said that is “one of the biggest and best things they do.”
As the cattle graze and are moved to different areas, it creates opportunities for different grasses to grow and encourages diversity, rather than a monoculture where one species of grass takes over.
“We work with nature," he said. "We're not replacing nature.”
Entering the industry without any experience, Campbell benefited from mentorship by other ranchers, and he learned from organizations like the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association (FFGA).
“What they do is teach ranchers about ranching,” Campbell said of the FFGA.
He went to every meeting they held for many years and was a board member for six. He was also selected for a mentorship from the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders Program.
As a relative newcomer, Campbell said people in the industry have been very welcoming, and that fact says a lot about the agricultural community.
“The fact that I’ve been able to succeed at actually starting a ranch and growing it speaks a lot for the community and their support for new people," he said. "It’s a really welcoming and supportive community, so I’m really thankful and grateful for that.”
Dog training, horsemanship and stock handling, grass and ecosystem management, fencing and equipment repair were all things Campbell learned on the job, adding that it is a lot of work and can be unpredictable.
“You’re always on call and you’re never really not working,” he said.
Campbell said there are few traditional family farms left, where at least one adult earns a full-time salary that pays the bills for the farm, on the farm, and the farmer owns the land.
“That’s almost not a thing here anymore," he said.
The farm’s focus on sustainable, grass-fed beef has been well received and people support that type of agriculture.
“I think all farmers want to be sustainable and ethical, and farmers really appreciate when customers take an interest in that," he said.
It’s great to see a demand for something you want to do, he said. Adding value on the sustainable and ethical side is really rewarding for farmers.
“I think that was one of the key reasons I got into agriculture, was I wanted to have a positive impact on the world, both the environment and people," he added.
The Campbells offer ranch tours throughout the summer where people can learn about agriculture and about the positive impact ranching can have on the ecosystem.
The Outstanding Young Farmers Program will hold its national event from Nov. 23-27 in Saskatoon.