Three honoured at Rural Urban Awards

Three local agriculturists were honoured at the Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce’s 77th Annual Rural Urban Awards last Wednesday at the John D. Bradley Centre.

Jim Campbell of Ridge Line and Anne Verhallen of Thamesville were honoured for their long and distinguished agricultural careers. Campbell was named Agriculturist of the Year, and Verhallen was the Friend of Agriculture Award recipient.

Hanna Reid, of Ridgetown, was honoured as the Junior Agriculturist of the Year but could not attend as she recently left for New Zealand, where she is working on a dairy farm for the next four to six months.

Bob and Diane Devolder, of Devolder Farms in Dover Centre, were honoured as the Agriculture Innovator of the Year one day after being inducted into the Kent Federation of Agricultural Hall of Fame ceremony in Oungah.

Campbell has been involved in the corporate side of agriculture for close to 45 years, including the last 25 as General Manager at Agris Co-Operative.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Campbell said of his award. “I’ve attended many of these banquets, seeing many of the agriculturist’s award winners and thinking that’s a pretty special group of people, and now to be in that club is pretty surprising and humbling.”

Campbell started his career with the former Trojan Warwick Seed Co., which eventually became the DeKalb Seed in Blenheim, where he worked for 18 months before moving on to the Ralston Purina company, where he worked for 17 years.

“I was ready to move back to the family farm. Agris was looking for a manager, and here we are, 25 years later,” said Campbell of his return to Chatham-Kent.

Campbell, his wife Joy and children Tyler, Jessica and Shauna moved back to the family’s Century Farm, where he was raised, as he is the fifth generation and Tyler the sixth to live on the Ridge Line homestead that was established in 1855.

“We’re all employed in agriculture, but none of us are farmers,” Campbell said.

Campbell is the senior officer at Agris, a unique co-operative owned by farmers in southwestern Ontario, and he reports to the 14 directors on the board.

“We’ve had a good amount of success; that’s the leadership from the board helping us identify what farmers’ services are going to want in the future and me being in a position to direct staff to develop those services,” Campbell said. “We really pride ourselves at Agris, investing in innovations and technology, whether we’re talking about drones or data collective services on the farm.”

Campbell remembers discussions about the future of farming technology back in 2001 when Agris opened its new office and warehouse in Chatham.

“We talked about the technology that goes into an F1 Formula car and all the data going back to the pits, and we thought if that could ever happen in farming,” he said.

Fast forward 22 years, and today’s tractors are equipped with GPS and Artificial Intelligence systems with touchscreen and video support.

“Now, all that data from tractors is coming back to people like us,” Campbell said. “And we’re wondering what’s next.”

Verhallen grew up on her family’s five-acre hobby farm in the Parkhill area after earning a Bachelor of Science in soil science from the University of Guelph.

After working briefly as a crop consultant in Grey-Bruce, Verhallen was hired by the Ministry of Agriculture Rural and Foreign Affairs and moved to Chatham-Kent in 1988, serving as a soil management horticultural specialist out of Ridgetown, retiring this past spring.

Verhallen and her husband John lived in the Bloomfield Road and Fletcher areas before moving to their current hobby farm near Thamesville 20 years ago, where she raises sheep and is active in the local 4H Club.

Verhallen has played a major role in soil and cover crop strategy in southwestern Ontario and across the province, where she impacted soil health and management and made them more understandable for farmers.

She was also instrumental, along with Woody Van Arkel and Greg Devries, in establishing the local Cover Crops Anonymous support group, the forerunner of the Ontario Soil Network.

“Farming is a lonely thing; it’s a very individual thing, even on a family farm,” Verhallen said. “When growers are trying something new, it can be really hard because there might not be that support.

“I try to be that support, and with Cover Crops Anonymous, we have a chance to get like-minded growers who are trying new practices together and just be able to talk and share their experiences.”

Verhallen said working with people, the support she provides farmers and the conversations around innovations are among the most rewarding aspects of her job.

“It always amazes me, the enthusiasm and the knowledge farmers have and how flexible they are,” Verhallen said.

She said conversations during field tours or in a van with farmers and researchers en route to a conference have been valuable in sharing ideas and learning about growers’ needs.

“You get into deep conversations of ‘what if I did this ... what would happen with this idea,’ discussions of about research and hearing the questions growers have,” she said.

Verhallen said she is humbled by her Friend of Agriculture honour from the Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s recognition of the work I’ve put in, but anything I’ve done has been in a group or a team,” she said.

“It’s an honour for me, but it really reflects the knowledge and the dedication of the farmers and researchers in this area.”

Verhallen said farmers in Chatham-Kent are “blessed” with the soil conditions and climate and having the Ridgetown Campus of the University of Guelph research facility at their fingertips.

“I’ve been blessed to work in a county that has so much going for it and so many resources,” she said.

Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News