It is Saturday morning and a wheat-coloured SUV is bucking slowly through a field half an hour northeast of the town of Cochrane, Alta. It is calving season, J.C. (Jack) Anderson’s favourite time of year to be out on the land. He enjoys nothing more than seeing a healthy newborn Black Angus calf find its feet and then immediately try to find its mother.
Now 91, Mr. Anderson leaves the driving to his long-time neighbour and friend, Lorne Armstrong. Perhaps later they will go for coffee or, even better, drop in on an auction, but for now Mr. Anderson is content just to be on the 19,000 acres of the sprawling W.A. Ranches and see some of its more than 1,000 head of cattle. It is a magnificent property – actually, several separate properties, with their own lake and, on a clear day, sweeping views of the Alberta Foothills all the way to the Rocky Mountains.
Mr. Anderson doesn’t care for publicity. In fact, he wouldn’t be interviewed for this story about him – no matter, everyone else was more than happy to sing his praises.
Mr. Anderson, with the help of his daughter, Wynne Chisholm, built W.A. Ranches from scratch to a point where, today, it is valued at $44-million.
Last year, the father and daughter decided to do something incredible with the magnificent ranch they had built from nothing.
They would give it away.
Mr. Anderson had a number of conditions, however, and high among them was lifelong permission to come out on Saturday mornings with Mr. Armstrong and simply be on the land he once owned.
Succession is a huge, little-talked-about issue in Canadian agriculture. A 2016 study by Statistics Canada found that the average age of Canadian farmers had risen to 55, an age where many Canadians are often retiring, or at least beginning to plan for retirement. The survey found more farmers were over the age of 70 than were under age 35. And an astonishing 92 per cent of farms had no written plan for who might take over once the main operator retires.
Mr. Anderson and his daughter knew they would one day face precisely this dilemma. As Ms. Chisholm puts it, “How do we keep the ranch going?”
The incredible growth of W.A. Ranches had been a bit accidental, but its success was no surprise to anyone who knew Mr. Anderson. He has never looked back since he was barely in high school, when he bought a couple of calves to fatten up over the summer and then sold them at auction for a nice profit.
“My father,” Ms. Chisholm says, “is a master at seizing opportunities. Working for other people was never going to be for him.”
The Anderson family successfully farmed and raised cattle at Gull Lake, Alta., before Mr. Anderson moved everyone to the Calgary area, where the entrepreneur found even more success in a variety of businesses linked to construction and servicing the oil and gas industry.
He was “hooked” on cattle, however, and as a hobby for many years would raise two head – one always called “Lunch,” the other named “Dinner.” Two became four and eventually became a herd of 30, which would require more land than he had. Mr. Anderson was then 77 years old, but he wasn’t through yet.
He talked his daughter into going beyond Cochrane to look at some property that was up for sale and she happily joined him, having never forgotten the joys of growing up and learning to ride on the spread at Gull Lake.
When they met the seller, Mr. Anderson said, “This is my daughter, Wynne – and she’s going to run the operation.” On the drive back to Calgary, Ms. Chisholm asked her father if he had been joking. He hadn’t.
“I had a very successful career in management consulting,” she says. “I was flying 100,000 miles a year in my job.”
But she couldn’t resist. Nor could they resist growing ever bigger. The original plan had been to have 300 cows and Ms. Chisholm working part-time on the ranch, but soon it was full-time and eventually there were more than 1,000 head. The ranch had 6,000 deeded acres and another 13,000 acres leased. Apart from the two owners, there were five full-time staff to run the operation.
“We wanted to be one of the best cow-calf operations in Canada,” she says. And they soon were. So healthy were calves and cattle from W.A. Ranches that they commanded a premium when sent to auction.
“Animals having a good life has always been important to me,” Ms. Chisholm says.
She became an early disciple of the teachings of Temple Grandin, the professor of animal science at Colorado State University who became famous for publicly speaking out about her autism and for her work on animal behaviour and stress factors.
Ms. Grandin has said she believes using animals for food “is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life, and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animals respect.”
Ms. Chisholm, with her father’s blessing, built W.A. Ranches on such thinking. She even walked through the various processing barns and pens so that she could see the operation “from the cow’s point of view.” Assisted by Jennifer Woods, who had worked directly with Ms. Grandin and now runs J Woods Livestock Services, Ms. Chisholm significantly changed routines, always keeping in mind “How we can make that a less stressful process?”
Such innovation was aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the use of cattle prods and taking away animal panic as much as possible.
“We always stayed true to our vision,” Ms. Chisholm says.
Time, however, was moving on. Mr. Anderson was entering his 90s and Ms. Chisholm her 60s. Bob Chisholm, her husband, was going on 70 and had spent his career in business. None of Ms. Chisholm’s siblings were involved in agriculture and the next generation was interested in other careers.
It was obviously time to talk about what to do with the ranch.
“There were a great many options considered, but none got traction,” Ms. Chisholm says. “It was a tough, emotional process. Running a ranch is a different relationship than being in a corporate office. You go to an office, work and then leave. You work on a ranch and all parts of your life are touched on the ranch.”
The family had long been involved in various boards – including Ms. Chisholm’s voluntary work with the Calgary Stampede – and they had a history of philanthropy, including a $5-million donation to the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine that established the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare.
They met with the current holder of that chair, Prof. Ed Pajor, and he talked to them about the many advantages of the school having a research herd – especially a herd of superior animals with a deeply detailed data base going back decades.
Mr. Anderson and Ms. Chisholm were interested. They first discussed giving a quarter section and perhaps 80 head of cattle, but eventually they came to realize that gifting the entire operation to the university made sense.
There would, however, have to be conditions. The operation would continue with the “One Health” philosophy that Ms. Chisholm had championed. The five staff would have to be retained – with even better benefits under the university plan – and the research done would have to be practical, useable and shared. There would need to be an outreach component so that researchers could share their findings “with those who will actually use it.”
And, of course, Mr. Anderson would have to be able to visit his ranch whenever he wished.
Late last September, the University of Calgary announced that the $44-million ranch was the largest gift of a ranch ever made to a North American university – “a transformational donation,” said university president Elizabeth Cannon.
Mr. Anderson did not even attend the announcement ceremony. He sought no publicity. He had other things to do – like get out on the land.
“These are rock stars,” faculty dean Dr. Baljit Singh says of Mr. Anderson and Ms. Chisholm.
“This will not be a typical cow-calf operation,” Mr. Singh says, “nor will it be a typical farm-education lab. We see it as a living laboratory where we can look at the science of cattle production in relation to the environmental health and the public health. A public arena where we can do science.”
“We are very hopeful that it does wonderful things not only for the faculty and students,” Ms. Chisholm says, “and helps develop large-animal veterinarians, especially for smaller communities.”
“The land is an incredible gift,” Dr. Pajor says. “But the gift of the experienced staff is not to be underestimated. They are worth their weight in gold. We’re academics – what do we know about running a ranch?”
The five long-time staff, along with a new manager brought in from a large B.C. operation, will run W.A. Ranches pretty much as it has been for years. Mr. Anderson and Ms. Chisholm, however, will now only visit – no more work.
“Maybe now,” Ms. Chisholm says, “we can have a vacation.”
A new breed of female farmers defies the ‘grass ceiling’
Wynne Chisholm is an extraordinarily generous and special person – but she is not unique.
Women are the true growth story in Canadian agriculture.
Far more women are taking up careers in agriculture – from running major ranch operations to starting up small organic farms – than is generally recognized. A 2016 census found that the number of female farmers and ranchers in this country has been on the rise; their numbers increased nearly 2 per cent since 2011, rising to an impressive total of 77,970.
They have been shattering what women in agriculture have long referred to as “the grass ceiling.”
More interesting is that, while farming is increasingly viewed as an aging man’s domain, among new farmers – those who have entered the business within the past five years – the number of new female farmers has doubled. A 2015 survey done by the National New Farmer Coalition, and reported by The Western Producer, found that 58 per cent of new farmers were women. While farms operated by women under the age of 35 rose by 113.3 per cent, male operators under 35 increased by only 24.4 per cent.
And it is a phenomenon that spreads well beyond the farm gate. At the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine – recipient of Ms. Chisholm’s significant gift – of 33 students in the class of 2020, 28 are women. The class of 2021 has 30 women and only five men.
Coral Sproule counts herself among the new young farmers, although, at 38, she has already served a term as president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and is currently the organization’s women’s vice-president. She first became involved in her late 20s.
Ms. Sproule spent several years working in organic farming and marketing organic produce. She has recently set out to establish her own certified organic operation, having moved back to the family operation near the Eastern Ontario town of Perth while her father recovers from knee-replacement surgery.
Her intention is to grow mixed vegetables and corn to grind for flour. She has plans to make tortillas from the flour and sell the product to various retail operations. Her husband, Eric, has work in an area factory. Son Feodor, 8, attends a local forest school and Tennyson, 3, is at home.
Ms. Sproule thinks of herself as a farmer, but knows that there are many women working the land in Canada and elsewhere who “won’t call themselves farmers."
“What,” she asks, “defines a farmer?”
It’s a fair question at times.
Trina Moyles, the author of Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World, has argued in this newspaper that "The ‘Farmer Joe’ caricature of a silver-haired, paunch-bellied man with a piece of grass stuck between his teeth has long persisted in North American imagination.” If a child is asked to draw a farmer, the farmer will almost certainly be a man.
Ms. Moyles makes reference in her book to the Second World War, when more than a million Canadian women went to work in the fields just as so many other women took up work in factories. The government also asked women to plant “victory gardens” in their back and front yards, and the program was so successful that eventually there were more than 200,000 such gardens producing nearly 60,000 tonnes of vegetables.
The government referred to these wartime agricultural labourers as “farmerettes.”
Today, women like Ms. Sproule and Ms. Chisholm proudly and rightly refer to themselves as “farmers” and “ranchers.”
“Whether we’re growing as a faction, I don’t know,” Ms. Sproule says. “But I think that we’re growing in our visibility.”
At a meeting of the NFU women’s caucus last fall, participants spoke of the importance of “taking the space we already occupy. Talk with a louder voice. And be there for one another, propping each other up."
The NFU, Ms. Sproule says, speaks of the “family unit” deliberately, to acknowledge that the “farmer” isn’t perceived to be the one sitting on the tractor and is, in fact, men and women and children working together.
“To say that women have always been a part of farming would be an understatement,” she says, “in that they say women grow more of the food in the world than anyone else.”
Ms. Sproule says that there has been a shift in recognition and appreciation in recent years.
“It’s more out there in conversation,” she says. “But we have a long way to go before balance.”