When Ben Wilson arrived at the Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-op in June 2019, he and his business partner, Sarah Wray, were there to create a short video about this historic ranch.
The two filmmakers, who run Story Brokers Media House, had access to experts from Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The Waldron’s native pastures, nestled between southern Alberta’s Porcupine Hills and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, were lush and green after spring rains. They had almost everything needed to tell another story — a story of a vanishing landscape — that Wray had been thinking about for weeks.
“All of us are wired to be both storytellers and drawn to story,” says Wilson, who lives at Bashaw, Alta., with his family. “Farmers are great storytellers. They gather at the local coffee shop or they gather at the neighbour’s kitchen table for coffee, and it’s always about sharing story. So I think that most agricultural producers in Canada have that innate ability but also have such an incredible story to tell.”
Bringing their skills together, they helped to share an important story about the world’s most endangered ecosystem and the role Canadian beef producers play in its stewardship. This documentary reached audiences outside of agriculture, extending the conversation far beyond the vast grasslands of the Waldron and southern Alberta’s ranching community.
A road less travelled
Wilson’s journey to both agriculture and filmmaking came through following his passions and delving into storytelling mediums. He grew up on an acreage outside of Ponoka, Alta., a community with strong agricultural ties. His parents, who were both optometrists, had many patients who made their living in agriculture. His father always asked his patients questions and learned a lot about farming and ranching from them.
“We’d go on these long bike rides, and I remember at a young age… I would ask my dad all these questions, and he would always know the answers, even though he was just getting the information from all of his patients,” he recalls.
Both his father and grandfather were pilots, and Wilson became interested in aviation. He got his pilot license in high school, then studied aerospace engineering at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Upon graduating in 2004, however, it was a difficult time to find work in Canada’s aerospace industry, and he travelled around the world between jobs. When he found an engineering position in Fort McMurray, he decided to save up for his next big adventure.
“I had this idea that I wanted to travel across Canada in an airplane by myself, kind of a solo adventure, and document this journey,” he says. “I eventually got to the point after a couple years where I had just enough money to buy a tiny little two-seater, single-engine airplane.”
This cross-Canada journey in the summer of 2006 lit a spark that eventually led Wilson to his current career. “I flew from Ponoka out to Victoria, and flew from Victoria all the way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and back home over a four-month period,” he says. While he was passionate about photography, he thought video would be a better way to share this adventure with others.
Wilson’s initial idea was to make a travel documentary, but he soon decided also to highlight the little-known world of private pilots, a struggling industry in Canada. The decline of the general aviation industry has several parallels to agriculture, he says.
“A lot of people whose parents were pilots aren’t really getting into it anymore the way people used to. There’s a high cost barrier to entry,” he says. “A lot of the small towns where they used to have airports are shrinking, the whole town is disappearing, their schools are closing down — all the challenges that face small rural communities in every province.”
After his trip, Wilson taught himself to edit video footage, and over a four-month period learned the basics as he worked on this film project. Later on, he was offered a position in aerospace engineering, and he and his now-wife, Kelly, moved to Halifax to pursue this opportunity. After his adventures and pursuing creative outlets, however, working in a cubicle wasn’t what he hoped for, and the couple returned to Alberta in 2009.
At that point, Kelly and her family had started a company called Farm On and were looking for a videographer to create website and e-learning content. Wilson joined the Farm On team and continued to learn about videography while making connections with producers and agricultural organizations through these projects.
Around this time, Wilson started hearing from people who were interested in video content outside of agriculture, and he began freelancing on the side. His company, Benjo Productions, grew to the point where he was busy enough to make it his full-time job. Two years ago, he partnered with his sister-in-law, Sarah Wray, who brought her expertise in marketing and social media to their video projects, and together they rebranded the company as Story Brokers Media House.
A story worth telling
“Kristine was talking about how the grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem on the planet,” says Wilson. “Sarah, of course, grew up in cattle production, and I had been learning about it for the last 10 years with my video work… But neither of us had ever heard someone say it’s the most endangered ecosystem on the planet and roughly three-quarters of Canada’s native grasslands are already gone.”
This idea stuck with the filmmakers, particularly for Wray, who started to brainstorm how they could tell this story and hoped for an opportunity to do so in the near future. A couple of weeks later, that opportunity came when they travelled to the Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-op to shoot footage for a short video about the ranch. During the first day of filming, Wilson recalls, Wray told Jill Harvie, then of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s public and stakeholder engagement team, about her idea to tell the story of the Canadian grasslands as a documentary.
Everyone agreed they could ask the interview subjects already present additional questions and shoot more footage for this longer project, which would become Guardians of the Grasslands.
“We got home and we realized we had almost everything we needed to put together this short film,” says Wilson.
Both Harvie and Amie Peck of CCA’s public and stakeholder engagement team supported the film by ensuring they had all the necessary research and that everything was factually correct. Ducks Unlimited provided photos of different species at risk.
“Little things like that that helped us to fill in the gaps and be able to complete the project,” he says. “In two or three weeks, we had all the editing done.”
Afterwards, the subjects featured in Guardians and the partnering organizations — Ducks Unlimited, Nature Conservancy and the CCA’s public and stakeholder engagement team — reviewed the finished product. Wilson emphasizes that creating the film wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration from the three partnering organizations.
After hosting a premiere in Calgary last October, the filmmakers built a website for people to request film screenings, which took off rapidly. Hundreds of requests poured in, from beef organizations in Canada to agricultural groups as far away as Cape Town, South Africa. As well, Peck helped Wilson and Wray submit applications to a number of film festivals.
“We reached a lot of industry people through those screenings, and then when the festivals started happening, the film really started reaching the public outside of agriculture,” says Wilson.
The film’s acclaim at festivals shows its impact beyond the agriculture community, something that hasn’t always been achievable for beef-related stories. “I think that that really was a mark of its success in that this was not simply the agriculture industry telling its story to each other or to itself.”
Although he’s been part of a number of viral agriculture communications campaigns over the past decade, the reach of those was usually limited to industry circles. “This was so exciting and so unique because it was film critics and it was chefs and it was urban audiences and people that just wanted to watch an interesting documentary that were getting excited and raving about it.”
Guardians of the Grasslands has now been a selection at several film festivals across North America, and to date has received six awards for editing, cinematography, research, direction and best short documentary.
“When we started to win some awards, then we really knew ‘Okay, this is really going places.’ It’s not just squeaking into these little small festivals; it’s getting in to festivals in Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal and New York and L.A.”
Playing the role of a storyteller is something Wilson is mindful of, and when he and Wray were choosing a name for their company, they thought about how their combination of skills allows them to help someone better share their story.
“We realized we’re in that unique position of being that broker between the person who has an amazing story to tell and helping them get that story to an audience,” he says.
“Canada has such a unique advantage of these incredible resources that producers are stewards of,” he continues. “Even if you’re not lucky enough to have native grasslands, lots of producers, whether it’s tame pasture or cropland or whatever it is that they’re managing, their commitment to stewarding that land and leaving it in better condition for the next generation is so incredible.”
These stories have power, as Wilson experienced with the public reaction to Guardians, and he understands the value in making meaningful connections with consumers, whether it’s through a compelling documentary or meeting a producer face-to-face.
“They’re blown away when they experience it first hand, how much farmers care and how much producers truly care, what the commitment truly is.”
For more information on the film or to book a screening, visit guardiansofthegrasslands.ca.