A couple sits down for dinner in their Vancouver condo. The table is set, candles lit, and a grass-finished filet mignon is paired with a dry red wine, both aged to perfection. Some 300 kilometres north, Randy Jones washes the dirt away from another day. He, along with partners Juri and Irinel Agapow, close the book on another long, labour-intensive day at The Hanceville Cattle Co.
The HCC is located in the Chilcotin District of the Central Interior of B.C, roughly 90 kilometres west of Williams Lake. The ranch is another example of DUC’s commitment to conservation and agriculture. That steak, cooked to perfection in a condo in Vancouver, is the result of the partnership.
DUC purchased the Handy Ranch in 2003. It acquired almost 200 acres of private land and took over the management of another 50,000 acres of associated Crown rangelands. The area provides essential habitat for migratory birds as well as playing host to ranches. It is this unique landscape that yields the perfect environment to raise certain breeds of cattle that thrive in this complex ecosystem. The HCC signed a 10-year lease agreement with DUC to manage Handy Meadow so they could expand their operation while maintaining the critical waterfowl habitat.
The spirit of the land
In the Cariboo-Chilcotin, ranching and agriculture are considered primary industries, after forestry. Livestock, in this part of the world, will test your resolve. Each season offers every weapon at Mother Nature’s disposal. Harsh winter winds chill to the core, only to give way the warming welcoming of spring. The ranch’s rough terrain is a combination of sweetgrass meadows butting up against rocky hillsides. Douglas Fir and wetlands dot the landscape, providing critical waterfowl habitat. To work and thrive, you must be willing to adapt.
Jones is not your typical rancher. After graduating high school, he went right into culinary school. From there, it was upscale restaurants in Vancouver before opening his own business in Pemberton. However, after a vacation to a lodge in the Chilcotin, Jones was hooked.
“I fell in love with it,” he says.
The road less travelled
His background in culinary led him down the road of agriculture. Finding the best possible, locally grown products became more than just a desire. Jones decided he wanted to be part of the industry that fuels his craft.
For Jones, there’s no better setting than the Chilcotin to make the dream become a reality. But it takes more than a dream. It takes partners willing to take a chance on the road less travelled. That’s why DUC’s Handy Ranch property fits so perfectly into HCC’s plans.
The HCC, like Jones, isn’t your typical ranch. After joining the Agapows, the trio decided to try and add a new approach to an old system. They chose to add breeds that can thrive in harsh environments. They looked for cattle that can “transform the native forage into a high-quality, fully grass-finished beef.” Belted Galloways and Aberdeen Angus, both originating in Scotland, were introduced to Handy Ranch.
Jones said they wanted to go back to the old-fashioned way of ranching. It relied on an ancient breed of cattle. It would allow them to put their mark on the industry with a unique twist. He says by finishing cattle on the sweet grasses of the Chilcotin’s “marginal lands” these hearty breeds thrive and produce an exceptional product. From there, Jones has been able to leverage his restaurant and industry connections. Thet began to directly market their product back to like-minded chefs.
He said their partnership with DUC has allowed them to expand their operation and make taking on these breeds possible.
“The whole concept of taking care of the land, so the land takes care of us aligns with what we are trying to accomplish,” says Jones. “Both entities are trying to do things that require good maintenance and stewards of the land. Ducks’ vision lines up perfectly with what we are trying to achieve, so it’s a perfect fit. I think it’s impressive that a for-profit enterprise can exist within that conservation model in a low impact way.”
Why partnerships matter
Katharine VanSpall is a biologist and Head of Habitat Asset Management for DUC in B.C.
She says one of the main reasons behind the original purchase of the Hanceville property was to showcase that you can ranch sustainably, and profitably.
“That was always the goal. It wasn’t a purchase of land just to turn it into just a conservation area and not have any other uses for it,” says VanSpall. “We wanted to make sure the land stayed in production, showcasing to other ranchers that yes, you can do things slightly differently and still be profitable.”
While ranching the land was one of the primary goals, the Cariboo-Chilcotin also plays a critical role in DUC’s conservation efforts. The region is home to nearly 60 per cent of the waterfowl breeding in the Intermountain. Waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and American white pelicans migrate, winter, stage, or breed here. More than 60 per cent of the world’s population of breeding Barrow’s goldeneye inhabit the Cariboo-Chilcotin.
“Handy Ranch offers waterfowl a variety of habitats,” says VanSpall. The native sedge meadows on the private lands, which are hayed by HCC, offer shallowly flooded foraging habitat to fuel spring migration. At the same time, the Crown rangelands have abundant permanent open water wetlands that provide breeding habitat. This perfectly meshes with a rancher’s need for year-round forages for their livestock.”
The partnership has afforded the HCC a chance to thrive, something that’s hard to find when working in a niche market, says Jones.
“It takes about three years to finish a Highland or a Galloway on grass. Three years is a long time to wait for a paycheque. So the added land allows us the flexibility to combine both traditional and specialty ranching.”
VanSpall is optimistic about the future of Handy Meadow.
“DUC has always needed to work with a sustainably-minded ranching partner to make sure the habitats of Handy Meadow Ranch are looked after. I believe we’ve found that unique partner in Hanceville Cattle Company. Handy Meadow can be a difficult place to ranch. It’s remote, but HCC has the drive and fresh-thinking to make Handy a success – for the birds and their bottom line.”