Students have a unique opportunity coming soon to Thompson Rivers University, helping to redefine the future of ranching and farming in the Cariboo and beyond.
A two-year program, Applied Sustainable Ranching is designed to attract students from places around the province and around the world, said David Zirnhelt, chair of the industry advisory board and Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association member.
“The response has been wonderful — this engages people immediately,” Zirnhelt said, adding that the underlying message of this program is that a ranch or a farm should stand on its own.
“They have to be structured to be profitable. It’s more than a lifestyle: we expect a modern business to use modern tools.
“It’s important to us for our local students to be able to access this, which is backed up by people like TRU Grit champion Brian Garland. Most of us have a reverence for food, land and the lifestyle of ranching and we think we have something to offer the world here.”
He explained that the idea for the course at TRU came from the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association wanting to tweak their process.
“We realized we needed a different skill set, and did a series of workshops; we looked at things like marketing, what a finished animal might look like and the role of genetics. For 50 years the main industry has been raising cattle for feedlot operation,” he said. “We wanted to see if there were other ways to use our resources.”
When they concluded that year-long process, he said that while sitting around talking after visiting neighbourhood ranches who hosted their workshop facilitators, they concluded that they really needed to have a course here instead of sending local kids somewhere else.
“We decided that a two-year program was something we should have here; we wanted TRU to formalize it and approached the dean of science and the Williams Lake campus. They were very interested.”
Applied Sustainable Ranching curriculum coordinator and local farmer Lynda Archibald said that it is the only program of its kind in B.C., and that the goal is a January 2016 start date. “When I first heard of this, I thought, wow: what an opportunity for young people in our area, and for young First Nations people,” Archibald said.
“This area is so rich, not just in ranching, but in other agricultural ventures such as farming. This area grows great potatoes, corn, berries, apples and superb vegetable crops.
“This practical course is based on academic and scientific theory background. It prepares students to begin a career as a ranch worker, manager or owner,” Archibald said. “It will give them a good feel from the ground up what it’s like to work and operate a ranch.”
Courses in Applied Sustainable Ranching include the financial or business end — things like strategy, costs, markets, human resources and regulation of land resources, she explained, adding that students will learn about sustainable grazing, water management, wildlife interactions, traditional and medicinal plants and urban agricultural interface.
“They will learn about entrepreneurial diversification, including different kinds of livestock, greenhouses, vegetables, fruit and honey production, as well as a section on farm stores, value-added product and agri-tourism,” Archibald said. “Hands-on skill development will include things like equipment management, soil development and fencing procedures.
“In the past, if you have a ranch there was always somebody working outside that ranch to make a buck. The cash flow simply wasn’t there. Now you can consider a farm a business.”
“We’ve reached out to the Quesnel and the South Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association to collaborate with us on developing projects, and for this one in particular; they have been part of the design process,” Zirnhelt said.
“The key is that initially we want to engage students locally and from across the province and by year three we hope to have at least 10 foreign students enrolled, as well as local students.
“And this is something we share with aboriginal people, many of whom are big in the industry or interested in getting back into it. I can see us collaborating with First Nations in developing programs that respect traditional land use.”
The two-year program can stand alone or ladder into a degree.
“We thought this would be a great opportunity to have students placed like co-op students in other industries. They would learn half the time on a farm or ranch with a host family, and half online working on the program, mixing face to face and hands on learning with mentorship and online instruction,” Zirnhelt said.
“They will go on weekly ‘field trips’ that would feature a local industry expert or one from away. Bringing in a big name speaker would help meet the needs of local producers, as well as the students,” he explained.
“This is all about facilitated learning, not lectures,” Zirnhelt said.
“Succession planning is important – our ranchers are getting older; we really want this to help train land stewards for the future.”