Forever Farmers

For two brothers born into a farming family, a lifelong connection to nature and community inspired a higher purpose: preserve the land for future generations

Christie Hutchinson - 19 December 2015

John Bocock was only seven years old when he drove a tractor for the first time. His small hands, not yet callused, groped for the hand clutch, bright eyes peering through the steering wheel of the John Deere. Lurching and chugging across the yard of the family farm in Sturgeon County, Alta., young John was brimming with both delight and trepidation.

It wasn't unusual for farm kids to start young, especially at a time when farmers faced a labour shortage created by the Second World War. Eighteen months his senior, John's brother Bill would have been considered an old hand by comparison, having started milking the family's dairy cows at the age of five. John and Bill didn't see it as a challenge, though. They were enthusiastic, keen to learn whatever they could about the family profession.

The Bocock brothers (John, pictured right, facing page, with Bill) are true farmers, born to the calling. True farmers can have great success away from the farm, but they're never entirely comfortable when they're separated from the land, like wearing a suit that isn't cut quite right. Because to a farmer, the land is so much more than just real estate. The land supports and sustains his livestock. It's the very fabric into which he sows his crops. The farmer is tirelessly persistent and invariably hopeful, working both with and against Mother Nature to coax from the soil a healthy, abundant harvest. It provides the very foundation of their livelihood, and so farmers are devoted stewards of the land, compelled to nurture and protect it for future generations.

The Bocock brothers are that kind of farmer.

Of course, even a calling has its challenges. Working shoulder-to-shoulder, every day, rain or shine - milking cows, doing chores, putting in crops, harvesting - and living together on the same property would be a challenge for anyone. John and Bill were not exempt. Early in their farming partnership, John says, he was critical and quick to judge the mistakes of his older brother. And just as quick to hide his own blunders. This self-righteousness caused tension with Bill that couldn't be ignored and threatened their shared goal of owning the most efficient dairy farm in Alberta. The solution would arrive on their doorstep from another continent.

In 1958, a group of farmers from Scotland and Africa visited Sturgeon County on a tour with the Moral Rearmament movement (now called Initiatives of Change). A core idea of this moral and spiritual movement was that to change the world, one must first seek change within oneself. When these fellow farmers shared their personal experiences of creating positive change in their lives and communities, the message resonated with John. "I swallowed my pride, apologized and asked for [Bill's] help to be different," he said.

Aerial photograph of the Bocock

And it worked. With peace between the brothers, the farm was more successful than ever, and this new irenic approach to life proved pivotal to maintaining personal and professional harmony on the farm. It was key especially as the family grew to include Bill's wife, Phyllis (who died in 2010), John's wife, Jenny, and their daughter, Rachel - all living on the family farm with John and Bill's aging parents. (Jenny is pictured left, facing page, with John, centre, and Bill.)

Eager to share their philosophy with others, the Bococks took their life lessons to farmers and communities around the world, including Zimbabwe, Thailand, India, Brazil and Cuba, to name just a few. They learned from these travels as well: lessons from those who tend foreign lands but also an appreciation of what they had back in Alberta. Jenny Bocock recalls a trip to the African nation of Eritrea that brought home the need to protect prime farmland. "I saw these farmers with their three goats on all this rocky soil and it made me think of all the beautiful soil and rich farmland we have in Alberta being built on instead of farmed. It's shortsighted."

And so these caretakers of their own land have grown to become protectors of the environment. They've been champions in the fight to save prime farmland from urban sprawl. And they've worked together with their neighbours, organizing one of the first community groups in Alberta to force an oil and gas company to install a sulphur recovery system at a sour gas plant in Sturgeon County.

By the time they'd reached their early 70s, the brothers saw the need to begin downsizing the farm. But how could they continue to protect their land from developers? A friend connected the Bococks with the University of Alberta, suggesting the university could use the land for research purposes. The Bococks sold - at a fraction of the appraised value - 777 acres of land directly south of their home to the university, which allowed the establishment of the St. Albert Research Station for the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. Here, a team led by soil and water scientist William Shotyk, the first Bocock Chair in Agriculture and the Environment, has been exploring the linkage between agricultural practices and greenhouse gas emissions, water management, soil erosion and sustainable crop development - the outcomes of which will help farmers everywhere feed the world. "My generation inherited a bountiful, sustainable homeland," says Bill. "Our greatest gift to the ones we love would be a legacy of productive farmland."

After nearly 60 years of farming, philanthropy and activism, it would be fair to say the Bococks have earned their retirement to a place in the sun. But that's not the kind of people they are. They'd miss the fresh smell of the breeze on a clear spring day. They'd miss the low mooing of their herd in the pale yellow dairy barn. They'd miss the feeling of the tar-black topsoil of their fields filtering softly through their fingertips. And they'd miss advocating for their community. For the Bococks, farming is forever.