In 1956 Tom Biggs moved from New York to Alberta and began TK Ranch on some of the flattest land and in the most brittle environment in Alberta, 26km south of Coronation. Being new to the area and new to farming may have been what kept him open to different ways of working on the land. Together with his wife Mary (Hallett), Tom became known for using alternative ways of managing the land in order to enhance the grasslands and biodiversity of the place - as well as to raise a quality herd of cattle.
The love and respect for the prairie that Tom and Mary held was carried into the next generation and now TK Ranch is under the stewardship of their son, Dylan, his wife, Colleen, and their four daughters. Last year TK Ranch received one of their greatest honours yet - they were given the National Prairie Conservation Award at the 9th Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Winnipeg, MB. The Prairie Conservation Award is granted to a deserving recipient from each of the three prairie provinces once every three years in recognition of significant long-term contributions to native habitat or species at risk conservation. For Dylan this award was extra-special because it was an acknowledgement and recognition of the hard work and deep message that his parents stood for. As he directs you to look at Mary’s extraordinary paintings that hang in around the house, Dylan recalls the love and respect and value for the native prairie that his parents gave him. “Mom’s heart and life was the prairie.”
For Colleen, this award was also an opportunity to take a look around. With their focus on their own land and ensuring that TK Ranch Natural Meats continues to make it in front of their customers, they’d lost some sight of what was happening immediately around them. With only 4% of the Northern Fescue grasslands left in the world - and with more understanding developing everyday about the value of these grasslands for species and also in maintaining healthy water systems - TK Ranch starts to seem more like an island for natural habitat than a ranch. Yet, Colleen reminds us “that the reason these ecosystems remain intact are because people and families have been farming there for generations.”
TK Ranch is a vertically integrated operation which means that Dylan works with the cattle from birth until slaughter and then when the meat is ready and processed, Colleen and their oldest daughter, Jocelyn, take over. They are marketing, taking and filling orders, and even doing their own deliveries to customers in Edmonton and Calgary. In June 2008 they invested in their own refrigerated truck because of challenges with contract delivery and also higher freight rates. While it adds to the work, it also means they get to connect directly with customers and can offer a more reasonable delivery service that both TK Ranch and their customers could afford. With the cattle operation, direct marketing of their meats, plus sheep, chicken, pigs and horses to care for - conservation on the TK Ranch is not a passive activity but is integrated into how they work with the land and animals. It is not a fully hands-off affair, in fact it is one of the busiest places you might visit, with the whole family involved. Even Tom, at the age of 81, is still involved helping fill meat orders or to move cows.
The next steps for the Ranch are always tied to their customers. Most direct marketing operations last only 10-14 months, while TK Ranch Natural Meats has been going for 16 years. From the early days when most of their meat was sold into hotels and restaurants to today where they retail in many health food stores that at one time would have never even sold meat, it has been about building awareness in the consumer and learning beside the consumer as well. The interest in natural meat started with many questions about the use of hormones and antibiotics in beef production and soon led to a desire for grass-fed and -finished beef. The Biggs’ now meet the demands of consumers who want all of that and have added care for animal welfare and the environment. Their customers are people who are educating themselves and asking a lot of questions. They may still be a smaller group but there are enough of them to keep the phone ringing off the hook. Which means that working with other producers is also becoming important for TK Ranch. To get bigger would only lead to compromising the quality that lies in the way they produce their meat and would make a busy operation even harder to manage. So they are constantly looking for other farm families to collaborate with and include in their meat program. The protocols they follow are high but they are willing to mentor and coach interested parties to meet them. As the Biggs’ act more and more as an advocate for the discerning consumer and as a mentor to the farmers who want to succeed environmentally as well as financially, perhaps we will see a new role for TK Ranch come to play: a hub for creating collaboration between family farms and farm-friendly consumers.
For now, they are busy enough raising their family, their livestock and caring for the ecosystem that they all depend on.