The most recent recipients of The Environmental Stewardship Award weren’t seeking praise when they implemented conservation-minded practices on their ranch. However, the opportunity to share their story with a national audience was incredibly meaningful.
“For us to be recognized was a true honour,” says Ricky Seelhof of Woodjam Ranch at Horsefly, B.C., who along with her husband Chad and their family won The Environmental Stewardship Award, or TESA, in 2020.
“We never set out to be recognized for our efforts, but I know we have worked very hard on doing a good job and doing it the right way so in return what we did on the ranch was a benefit to not only us but our land, our cattle and all the critters that co-exist with us,” she says. “I do believe this is an award most ranchers want to win.”
Seelhof’s enthusiasm for this award highlights the success of the program in encouraging the environmental stewardship that goes hand-in-hand with cattle production.
Introduced by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in 1996, TESA selects an annual national winner from the year’s provincial stewardship award winners, recognizing farmers and ranchers who exemplify how to implement conservation practices that benefit their operations.
The idea for this program originated with a provincial stewardship award in Alberta in the early 1990s, which was suggested by Tom Livingstone, a rancher on the board of directors of the then-Alberta Cattle Commission.
“Tom chaired the land use committee, and he got the idea of recognizing best practices in land stewardship with an environmental stewardship award,” says David Andrews, who ranches with his family near Bow City, Alta. The Alberta Cattle Commission presented the first award in 1992, and in the next few years, other provincial beef organizations followed suit.
When Andrews became the CCA president in the mid-1990s, the provincial associations brought forth the idea of creating a national stewardship award. The aim was to “celebrate what we knew cattlemen and farmers and ranchers did naturally, which was care for and be good stewards of their land resources,” he says, and to “encourage others in the industry to continue to expand on the use of best management practices for the use of grazing lands, farmlands and water resources and riparian areas.”
Peggy Strankman, who was CCA’s environment manager when the award was introduced, remembers the 1990s as a challenging time for the beef industry’s public image. “We had the Meat Stinks campaign by PETA, and being attacked by a local country singer, k.d. lang; it was pretty hard for the ranchers to take,” she recalls. “We were seeing campaigns like Cattle Free by ’93 coming out of the U.S., and there was an anti-meat book that was pretty popular at the time called Diet for New America.”
An award to promote the environmental benefits of cattle production was perfectly timed. “It was a platform to recognize the good stewardship of the ranching community, and it was a way that we could focus the public’s attention on that good management,” says Strankman. “It was also a way to let people know that good stewardship was the basis of the excellent reputation that Canada beef had, domestically and internationally.”
Twenty-five years later, Andrews believes that celebrating producers’ stewardship efforts has contributed to the Canadian beef industry’s current focus on fostering and promoting the mutually beneficial relationship between cattle production and the environment.
“I think it’s clear that the profile of environmental stewardship on farms and ranches has benefited significantly from these kinds of awards,” says Andrews, pointing towards industry partnerships with Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “Those kinds of relationships have evolved to a fairly sophisticated state of affairs today, and that’s all really positive for the cattle industry and for the general population.”
“Environmental stewardship is directly related to family and health and overall well-being of our lifestyle,” says Duane Thompson, who ranches at Kelliher, Saskatchewan, and is chair of the CCA’s environment committee.
“I honestly feel that had we not been environmentalists, just in my family there wouldn’t be six generations in this business.”
Reaching a wider audience
“To have folks see and praise our style of management promotes our reason to do what we do,” says Miles Anderson, who ranches at Fir Mountain, Sask., and was the 2016 national TESA recipient.
For an industry that often has a hard time promoting itself, Thompson says, learning about TESA winners encourages other producers to share their successes. “When people read about the TESA award, I think it makes them just a little more comfortable telling their story,” he says.
Being recognized for her family’s stewardship efforts has boosted Seelhof’s confidence when communicating with consumers. “This award is giving people leadership in the beef industry,” she says. “When you recognize producers for their efforts, the award gives confidence and in return, the industry is getting leaders (to) share their stories, continue paving the way and taking care of the land and the animals.”
With farmers and ranchers making up just a sliver of Canada’s population today, it’s vital that these stories reach the consumer. “There are so many that don’t have the opportunity to experience this world we work in. The TESA award can give them a better feeling about supporting us when they go to the store,” says Anderson, adding that having this distinction is useful for his buyers, who market the beef to the European Union.
The Harpers share their stewardship practices as much as possible. “We put our story of water management and sunlight capture into every conversation that we can,” says Harper. “We host a pasture day every year for producers and are also considering having a ‘consumer appreciation day.’ I feel telling the story is only a small way to present what we do, but showing actually ‘digging down,’ literally, really seems to excite our urban community the most.”
Harper didn’t anticipate the role this recognition would play in the larger conversation with the public about agriculture. “I still have frequent acquaintances to this day mention that they saw the headlines of us receiving the award and have followed our story ever since,” he says.
However, he believes this recognition isn’t reaching the general public as much as it could to truly make a difference in perception, with most of the media coverage coming from agricultural publications targeting producers. He’d like to see a short film on past provincial and national winners targeted to the public, “something along the lines of Guardians of the Grasslands.”
How to better leverage these stories in the public sphere has long been a question on Thompson’s mind, and he notes how difficult it has been at times to get elected officials to recognize TESA winners from their provinces or regions. “I find that so frustrating and disheartening,” he says.
With both information and misinformation moving so quickly today, Strankman advises learning how to use social media more effectively to share these success stories, focusing on the personal aspects of how your family raises beef. “It’s possible to connect at a very basic level with so many people in such a short time when you get your message right, and when you’re connecting with people at an emotional level, then you can make a difference,” she says.
Anderson likes the idea of promoting numerical facts about the environmental achievements of past TESA winners, and he suggests using the award itself as a conversation starter. “Everyone has their own ideas about stewardship, and I don’t think we have to be embarrassed about our role (in) conservation.”
Building awareness, leadership and public trust
“I would love to see a nominee from …if not (each of the) provinces, each of the cattle producing areas in the country,” says Thompson, “and I would really like it recognized and promoted within the local areas and then beyond to our decision-makers in government, to our urban families.”
Andrews anticipates the national and provincial honours will continue to be sought after and awarded annually. “As you get more and more communities who have been exposed to award winners and the signs go up, then it just continues to reinforce the desire by our industry to be recognized as good environmental stewards,” he says.
“I don’t take any credit for it because it wasn’t my idea, but I certainly am proud of the fact that I was part of the initiative.”
Seelhof hopes to see TESA continue indefinitely for the value it holds in rewarding the efforts of producers and in building greater trust in Canadian beef production.
“People who are doing a good job, I think, need to be recognized, and it’s the only way for the future of the beef industry,” she says.
“The experiences I have had with consumers is that it all comes down to understanding,” she continues. “We live in a world where most people have been so far removed from where their food comes from. They just read something online and believe it. Having this award to showcase to the public is a huge step in the right direction. It’s showing the public what actually goes on.”