Coffee companions preserve legacy of prime farm land

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 11, 2008

Among our treasured e-mail coffee companions is an Alberta family long revered for thinking globally and acting locally. For their latest initiative in stewarding life’s resources, dairy farmers Bill Bocock, his wife Phyllis, his brother John, and John’s wife Jenny, together with John and Jenny’s daughter Rachel, from north of St. Albert, grabbed the front-page headlines of the Edmonton Journal last week. But more about that in a moment.

Many ranchers around Cochrane and Morley know of the Bococks’ reputation for outstanding contributions to their industry and to building bridges of goodwill.

From the time the Bocock family entered my own life over 30 years ago, they have been a principal link for me to people like themselves – people of good thinking and good practice around the world, like leaders of the Maori cultural re-awakening in New Zealand, the pro-democracy movements in Burma (Myanmar) and Zimbabwe, movers and shakers for values of reconciliation, like Rajmohan Gandhi of India (Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson), and many of Canada’s First Nations elders who seek to bring healing to the often-frenzied and fractured ways of modernity.

Indeed, I would not be out of line to credit the Bococks with helping me enter into the great conversation of life that has resulted in this Coffee with Warren series of columns. Wisdom comes by listening, they would affirm, and by listening more widely we gain a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.

In many memorable moments over tea and around their dinner table, they have stressed with me the importance these days of listening to one thing, in particular: the cry of the earth.

Their own response has been to be responsible managers of their land, and to speak out on pollution of, and urban sprawl into, all-too-scarce farmland in general.

They love to quote the late C. F. Bentley, one-time dean of agriculture at the University of Alberta: “Future generations will find inexcusable our squandering of agricultural land.”

Which brings me back to why this family of such generous spirit grabbed the headlines last week:

Moving into their retirement years and desiring to preserve the heritage of their prime farm land, they turned over 320 hectares – five quarter-sections, located three km north of St. Albert – to the University of Alberta, at far below market value, for the institution’s endangered agricultural program.

As Bill said at their farm during the June 4 presentation ceremony to the university, “It is our hope that some of the research done here will provide alternatives to the dependency of North American agriculture on petroleum products. We have confidence the University will be good stewards of this land.”

Recognizing the long-term research importance of the gift, reportedly the largest such gift ever made to a Canadian university, U of A president Indira Samarasekera said, “This is a truly transformative moment in the history of the university.”

The existing agricultural and environmental research facilities located within Edmonton city limits have faced impending closure, to be converted into institutional and residential developments. Replacement land would have been too expensive or too far away. The gift of the Bocock land couldn’t have been timelier.

Bill’s wife, Phyllis, had her own take on turning the land over to the university:

“I remember a Cree friend, Ed Burnstick, saying that we are meant to care for the land as if we are thinking for seven future generations. Now we are passing on this responsibility to the younger generation. I'd like to think whenever my great nieces, great nephews and their children pass by this university land they will feel proud of the fact it is being used to feed the world.”

Attending the event was another of our e-mail coffee companions, Jack Freebury. He sent me a note describing the significant honour paid by First Nations elders to the Bocock family, to the land, and to the university.

“I was especially moved by the special pipe ceremony held prior to the formal gathering,” Jack wrote. “It was conducted by Will Campbell and other aboriginal elders with members of the Bocock family, their friends and the Dean of Agriculture participating. It emphasized the special relationship all living things have with the land and the need to give priority to it.”

From my perspective, the event had another, closely-related meaning: It celebrated the special relationship our coffee companions can have with each other, as we, like the Bocock family, strive to do what we can for the wellbeing of the whole world.

Congratulations, John, Jenny, Bill, Phyllis and Rachel, for your exemplary initiatives of change.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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