Over the course of Ken Gross’s life and award-winning career, he has never been far from nature. With relatives on both sides of the family who farmed, and a father who was an agricultural research scientist in Brandon, Man., his love of the outdoors was encouraged from the very beginning.
“I would always watch my father as he worked on his research projects,” says Gross. “He was really interested in birds and plant identification, and that certainly ignited an interest for me. That interest never dimmed.” In fact it took him from childhood all the way to a master’s degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, and further still to joining Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) in 1990.
To Gross’s mind, it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. “In Ducks Unlimited, I found the opportunity to pursue all my passions at once,” he says. And that’s precisely what he’s done since his first days at the Shoal Lake field office, in a career that has brought him to the leadership of conservation programs for DUC in Manitoba.
Building trust and partnerships
Overseeing almost a million acres of habitat on DUC conservation projects is no easy task, and Gross is the first to tell anyone that it takes a village. “I’m most proud of the partnerships that I’ve been able to build over the years,” he responds when asked what drives him. “Those are the lifeblood of DUC’s success.”
At the forefront of that success is establishing trust with Manitoba’s agricultural community. It’s a trust that Gross has worked to cultivate and expand as a member of the Manitoba Forage Council board for more than two decades, and as a founding director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association.
“Conservation can sometimes be seen as an obstacle to industrialized farming,” he says, “but when you have those partnerships, farmers begin to see you more as an ally. And that’s the goal.”
This goal led Gross to serve on boards like the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association which worked with DUC to promote sustainable farming practices to grain producers; as well as serving as a director on the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives (MBFI), a partnership that was recognized in 2016 with a “Manitoba Service Excellence Award.” The relationship continues as DUC has partnered with MBFI to secure nearly $350,000 in grant funding to support forage programs that benefit Manitoba’s livestock industry.
The results of these efforts have been a shift in mindset around conservation, says Gross. “Farmers are beginning to see natural habitats as a positive asset to their operations, and not as something in the way of their farming. They see the ever-increasing benefits to themselves and to the landscape, from flood mitigation and carbon sequestration, to wildlife habitat and pollinator habitat that improves crop yields.”
He is quick to add, “I can’t take credit for any of this though. Conservation, like everything else, is a team sport. The credit goes to everyone I work with.” Still, it brought him the much-deserved recognition of being named to the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association Wall of Fame in 2021.
You can see your impact not just on the landscape but on the people who tend it, in real time.
A bright future
Working with farmers and giving them the tools they need to retain and restore their diverse landscapes has given Gross a proving ground for agricultural innovation that benefits both nature and the industry as a whole. As DUC celebrates its 85th anniversary, these benefits are only set to grow.
“We’re constantly innovating,” says Gross, as he outlines a new program that works to seed legumes into existing pasture and hayland to increase production. “We have a good toolbox of programs right now that we’re always tweaking and improving so that they resonate with the agriculture community. That’s how we build a future together.”
That future, Gross says, is one in which everyone sees habitats as positive assets. One where landscape resiliency is the baseline, and we all can thrive both in nature and in agriculture.
“What I hope is that people don’t just see a wheat field or a wetland anymore, they see the whole picture, and where they fit in it. Because that’s where the opportunities are.”
Positive impact in real time
It’s not often that someone gets to witness in their lifetime the positive change their work has on the world, which is why Gross calls conservation one of the most empowering fields one can pursue.
“You can see your impact not just on the landscape but on the people who tend it, in real time. I remember decades ago working to get producers into winter wheat. Twenty years later, I get a call from one of them and he tells me how that work has fundamentally changed their farming practices for the better,” he recounts. With a laugh, he adds, “You can’t beat that.”
It should come as no surprise then that Gross has no intention of slowing down any time soon. When asked what he wants people to know about DUC, Ken brings it back to partnerships. “Reach out and learn how we can work together. We have programs that benefit producers working on any and every landscape. It pays to work with us. Not just financially, but the broader advantages of keeping habitat. We have something to offer everyone.”
Interested in a conservation career?
Join our team of passionate professionals. Just like Ken Gross.View careers