In many ways, Stephen Hughes has become the face of the sustainable beef movement in Canada.
He’s spoken at conferences, given numerous interviews, and appeared in videos and commercials for McDonald’s sustainable beef initiative. Now the fast-food giant has named the Longview rancher the first “flagship farmer” in Canada.
But while he’s willing to stand in the spotlight, it’s only because it’s a way to showcase the beef sector and the good work it is doing.
“To me, I’m representing my peers and my industry,” he said. “By no means do I think I’m doing a better job than anybody else. But I’m willing to talk about it.”
McDonald’s started the flagship farmer program a few years ago in Europe to recognize “ranchers who were exceptional in their field, whether they were innovators or people sharing best practices,” said McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts.
“He’s a natural leader in his own humble way,” Betts said of Hughes. “I think that what we’ve learned in Europe from these efforts is that the individual in the role can broaden his own experience by sharing it with others. He’ll be sharing with the international farmers as well.”
Hughes, a third-generation rancher who operates Chinook Ranch, has been an advocate of sustainable farming long before that term was coined. For example, he started rotational grazing in 1996.
He was the first rancher in the country to sign up for the McDonald’s beef sustainability pilot and the first to become verified under the program in 2015. His involvement in the flagship farmer program was announced at the Western Canada Grazing and Soil Conference in front of a room of about 550 attendees.
In this role, Hughes will help raise the profile of the work that he and other sustainable beef producers are already doing, said Betts.
“It’s not about McDonald’s. It’s not about Stephen because he represents everybody,” he said. “He’s a humble guy, but he’s also confident, and he knows the importance of what he can accomplish with this.
“He has a drive for positive change in the industry and his willingness to spread his knowledge makes him the ideal fit for the McDonald’s flagship farmer program.”
But there are many others in the provincial beef sector who are great ambassadors for their industry, he aded.
“We’re fortunate in Alberta,” said Betts. “If it was a sports game, I would say that it’s a very deep bench of leaders in Alberta who are passionate and care about the environment and the industry.
“It’s really cool that the guys in Alberta have established the goalposts, if you will, the standards for sustainable beef in the world.”
Hughes said he supports the beef industry’s partnership with McDonald’s.
“They want to sell more burgers, obviously, but they are working hard to pull my industry forward and they’re spending a lot of money doing it,” he said. “They’re very positive about the good stories in our industry and they want to tell them.”
In his speech to the crowd at the grazing and soil conference, Hughes vowed to do his best to represent progressive Canadian producers through the flagship farmer program.