Features & Stories

Story by Trudy Frisk

“Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above, don’t fence me in,
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, don’t fence me in.”

That wide open ranch land is vanishing quickly.  With its disappearance goes a way of life, an industry, and western Canada’s best chance of preserving intact, natural grasslands and many rare and endangered species living there.

Weather and markets used to be a rancher’s main concerns.  Today he or she has to contend with population pressure; residential and commercial development driving up the price of ranch land; and both government and public policies which, with the best of  intentions, create more problems for ranchers.

Agnes Jackson is a life long rancher.  She was three weeks old when she fed her first cows. (Her mother was with her at the time.) Her family, the Foleys, ranched at Long Lake, then at Logan Lake, in B.C.  In 1971 Agnes and her husband, Roy Jackson, bought the Cherry Creek Ranch.  In 1974 they purchased the Napier Lake Ranch, which Agnes, after Roy’s recent death, still runs.

Agnes was Chairman of the B.C. Cattleman’s Association from 2002-2004. The B.S.E. crisis struck during those years.  Agnes was the spokesperson for the industry, trying to calm fears and maintain markets.  She is not easily discouraged.

But, today she is quite concerned about the future of ranching.  In the past few years the industry has downsized by thirty-five percent and, she fears, is likely to lose another thirty to fifty percent in the next year or so.

The cattle industry is losing so many ranches of all different sizes.  It’s discouraging to small producers, which most ranchers are, and to young people getting into the industry.  “We can’t rely on the trophy ranches to provide protein for the population and protection for biodiversity.” , Agnes believes.  Part of the problem is that less than two percent of the population is involved in agriculture.  Agriculture, by itself, just doesn’t have enough votes to sway government policies.

Six years of very poor markets, the fact that ranching is very vulnerable to changes in the Canadian dollar, and  international attention to climate change mean that global influences matter very much in  ranching. 

Independent as they are, ranchers prefer not to draw attention to themselves, by, as Agnes puts it, “public wallowing in our financial woes”, but to get on with their work. “ It’s not just a business.  We have a passion for the land.  Losing it is like watching a loved one die from factors that are way out of our control.”
There have been dramatic positive changes in the ranching community in recent years.  Agnes believes that biodiversity and ranching are “a very good fit.”  “One hundred and twenty years ago people didn’t consider the effects of long term grazing on bunch grass or of grazing twelve months a year.  With education ranchers have become aware of birds and different species on our land, all of which co-exist quite comfortably.  Ranchers may have been reluctant pupils in the beginning but were won over. We’ve learned a lot in the last quarter of a century and come a long way in managing for endangered species as well as cattle. “

“Grasslands hold more endangered species than any other climatic zones,” Agnes points out. “Keeping large tracts of land intact is really the only way to protect them. Cows, grouse and burrowing owls can all live together. Other uses come at the expense of biodiversity. We should encourage diversity, not monoculture.”

“Most ranchers enjoy seeing the wildlife; it’s all part of our life style.  Other species are an essential part of our landscape.”  Short-tailed grouse were impacted quite severely by hunting. The Jacksons and their ranching neighbours, when looking for them, just didn’t see them.  So, they all managed their ranches to provide habitat so they could come back. “We see more of them now that in the past thirteen years.  It’s encouraging.” Agnes comments.

“Ranches and conservation, “she strongly believes, “is a good story untold. “The public probably doesn’t realize the crucial part the large ranches play in protecting species.  Ranching tends to fly under the radar.”

Zoning doesn’t seem to consider conservation, either. In B.C., a fast growing province, there is constant pressure to change zoning.  Planners need to recognize what good, socially beneficial things are happening on the land before they change the zoning. True planning means considering what will be important twenty years down the road.

Furthermore, Agnes, points out, ranchers don’t use the best land.  Cattle are run, mostly, on marginal land which wouldn’t be used for anything else.  Ranching, provides food for the population  using relatively poor land.

Agnes believes that if the general public truly understood the benefits of preserving large ranches they would support the cattle industry as they did during the B.S.E. problem.  “The Canadian public was so supportive of the cattle industry they drew the politicians along. They couldn’t have done better if we’d been hockey players.” 

During that time the borders were completely shut, the dollar shot up, demand for beef dropped, export markets closed and were not re-opened.  Feed, already very expensive, became more costly because of bio-fuels. 

Being spokesperson for the Cattlemen’s Association ‘had its challenges’, Agnes remembers.  “It was a terrible crisis.” However, she had a good Board of Directors, there were good government support programs then, in fact there was a lot of support from both the Provincial and Federal governments.  The Federal government, which barely knew the cattle industry existed, was shocked to find that it was worth thirty-four million dollars to Canada yearly.  The fact that the beef industry is mostly in western Canada may have been a factor. 

The Cattlemen had very strong leadership and did what they could for the ranching industry.  While the border was closed to Canadian export beef, it was still open to imports.  Outraged Canadians considered it their patriotic duty to eat Canadian beef.  Jimmy Pattison did a great deal for the cattlemen, marketing their beef through his Overwaitea stores.  When he asked the Association, “What can I do to help?” they replied, “Sell our beef.”  So he did, advertising the sale of B.C. beef at his stores.  Sales of beef increased forty five percent. “Jimmy Pattison, and Ken Clark, his meat manager, did a phenomenal thing for us.” Agnes remembers, “and, at hamburger barbeques, the public lined up to support us.”

Factors, which at first seem beneficial, have turned out the opposite for the cattle industry.  The 100 Mile Diet, for example, should include locally raised beef, you’d think. Wrong.  Because there are no processing plants and few feed lots in B.C., cow/calf producers ship them to Alberta to finish and then bring the beef back.  “It’s simply an economy of scale.” Agnes explains. The fact that they aren’t completely finished where they were raised, disqualifies the cattle from being included in the 100 Mile Diet. 

Getting beef on the counter takes a great deal of marketing.  Cattlemen feel that local beef should be on the counters of local supermarkets. The industry would very much like to become part of the Diet, in fact would like to become part of a niche market, the “Nicola Valley” brand of beef, for example, but, right now it’s not an option.  Grass-fed beef, also popular, can be difficult to raise because of the long winter season with few months of good grazing.

Carbon tax, yet another good plan gone bad, has also added to the rancher’s woes.  It’s increased overall costs drastically, whether ranchers are running irrigation pumps, buying feed, shipping cattle to processing plants, or just involved in the ordinary maintenance of their lives. The tax, which was promoted as revenue neutral, hasn’t worked out that way for the agricultural community.

 “It’s a very unfair tax for rural people.  We have to drive thirty kilometers one way to get our mail. We truck cattle out onto the summer range.  We can’t raise cattle in downtown Kamloops, we have to drive, even to check on the cattle.” 

Agnes firmly believes that ranching itself has a very small carbon footprint.  “We’re harvesting sunshine, turning grass into protein.  If  eco-system and species protection are considered, ranching is a positive use of the land, a net carbon benefactor.”

Can anything be done to save a family industry which raises food while protecting habitat?  Surely it would be worth something to society to know that the same land, which, for over one hundred years, has provided a living for a ranching family, nesting or resting sites for waterfowl, often on ponds created by ranchers; and non-imported food for people, will continue to do so. With the goodwill of government behind them, it could be done. Both government and the public would have to recognize the full value of agriculture.

Ninety per cent of Vancouverites say they support the agricultural land reserve.  “We support it, too.”,  says the government.  As Agnes points out, there’s a huge difference between supporting farm land and  supporting farmers.

Other places, including some very unlikely ones, have done it successfully.  “Europeans have protected their farmland; we’re a long way behind.  New York has done an exceptional job of retaining farmland in a very populated area.  Kentucky and California actively support their agricultural communities.”

“Giving farmers money is the best thing in the world, they just put it right back into the land.” , Agnes insists.  Protecting farmers and farmland in the U.S. and Europe involves farm income insurance, and trust funds which pay farmers the difference between production value and real estate value.  Real estate value is established by the market, productive value for cattlemen by the AUM. 

Payment also recognizes the stewardship of ranchers in protecting the land. Ranchers and conservancy groups work together. 

Agnes sums up the situation, “At the time of B.S.E. the public overwhelmingly supported Canadian ranchers.  Times were fine then.  There was no unemployment, other exports were good.  Now there are so many issues; people are defending their own turf.  Agriculture has to share the stage with a whole lot of other people and problems.”

If government and the public are serious about maintaining food security and biodiversity, they are going to have to involve ranching and the rest of the agriculture community and pay to keep the land.  We can’t afford not to.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

© 2023 Interactive Broadcasting Corporation