A bright young dairy farming couple from central Alberta is kicking off the 2020 awards year for Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers.
Roelof and Mary van Benthem of Spruceview, about 30 km west of Innisfail, were selected in February as Alberta’s regional nominees for the national awards. They are the first of seven regional nominees from across the country who will be selected over coming months to represent their province or region at the national competition this fall in Saskatoon, Sask.
I’ve been going to Outstanding Young Farmer events for a long time — probably since before some of the current nominees were born. This year, the program is 40 years old in Canada, and I have been interviewing nominees and going to awards events for about 32 years.
I was a pretty new reporter with Country Guide back in the day, and news releases were coming out about the OYF national awards program. The program started in Calgary and soon moved the national awards presentation to the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina in November.
I remember one year in the early 1990s I was heading to Agribition in Regina and I had made arrangements through the national OYF committee to interview the seven regional nominees, one after the other, each with a half-hour time slot. Someone at Agribition found me a cubbyhole of an office — a desk under a stairwell— where I could conduct the interviews. And away we went.
As I recall everyone showed up on time for what turned out to be a very intense 3-1/2 hours of information gathering on my part. I got it done, but decided not to do that again — that was truly information overload.
I haven’t covered every COYF competition over the past 30 years. I missed some for one reason or another, but certainly in the last few years it has been good to organize a special section in Grainews each fall providing a short profile of the current year’s nominees. And a bit of news on the sponsorship front. The national OYF is sponsored by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Bayer, CIBC, John Deere Canada, ULC and Sollio Agriculture. Glacier Farm Media has joined this year as media sponsor and Calgary-based WS communications (formerly Woodruff Sweitzer) will be helping with advertising and promotion.
Best and the brightest
Are the OYF nominees the only bright young farmers in Canada? No, I am sure there are hundreds more living on county, township and concession roads across the country who have a great family and business story to tell. But the OYF regional nominees and even the runners-up in regional competitions are those who are prepared to go one step further to put themselves out there and let the world have a closer look at how they’ve developed their agriculture enterprise over the years.
I attended the awards luncheon in Red Deer, Alta., where Roelof and Mary van Benthem were introduced to the world. The Alberta OYF committee always stages warm and friendly events with a bunch of very positive people.
While the program name describes them as outstanding, the OYF alumni are still everyday farmers. The crops guys still went through the so-called “harvest from hell” in 2019. And no matter what farming sector they are in they all still have to cope with the consequences of politics and markets and they still have to be on guard for crop and livestock disease outbreaks. And I haven’t met any OYF yet who had any control of the weather. But they seem to be a good-attitude bunch, always open to new ideas, and in many respects, testing the limits.
The van Benthems have established a well-managed dairy at Spruceview. They own 840 acres, have a 120-head milking herd and 150 head of young stock. Roelof immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 2000 and studied a number of things including, kinesiology, embryo transplantation, speedskating, agriculture production and management at Olds College before launching into the dairy business. He and Mary were married in 2010 and they have four children.
Roelof believes in improving herd genetics to benefit both milk quantity and quality. Over the years he has worked with veterinarians to learn how to do his own embyro recovery and transfer work. They have two robotic milkers for milking the herd.
It doesn’t sound like over-the-top stuff, but they apply management practices that help give them an edge when it comes to improving production efficiency.
Similarly, last year’s Alberta nominees were husband and wife farming team Dallas Vert and Natasha Pospisil farming on the east side of the province near the hamlet of Kurriemuir.
Not only did they grow the fourth-generation family grain and oilseed farm to about 11,500 acres, to keep the focal point of their community alive and well they also bought and operate the Kurriemuir Ag & Oil general store. And if that wasn’t enough to keep them busy as they also raise three children, in 2011 they bought Dryland Agro — a fertilizer, chemical and seed retail outlet.
The Saskatchewan OYF committee will be hosting the 2020 national competition in Saskatoon this fall. I’m hoping to make it to the awards. They are describing Saskatoon as the Paris of the Prairies, which perhaps refers to a side of the city I haven’t seen before.
There will no doubt be a number of events planned for the national awards agenda, but one thing for sure there will be gathering of seven bright, young farm couples from across the country (including the van Benthems from Alberta), all able to impress the judges with how their hard work, smarts and use of new technology keeps raising the agriculture production and management bar another notch or three.