John Benham: A humble journey to the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame

John Benham gets a bit emotional when he looks back on the contributions  others have made towards his personal and professional success.

“Two people that need to be recognized are my father and mother, who sacrificed a great deal during the Great Depression to allow me to get a good education,” the Rockwood resident said nostalgically.

He was also quick to thank his wife Anne – “when I was away somebody had to run the show,” he says with a grin – as well as his children, other relatives, friends, and colleagues.

“So many people have been helpful along the way,” Benham noted.

In fact, he is so quick to deflect any credit, one might not realize he is the latest inductee into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame.

But try as he might, Benham could not deny a long list of his significant achievements as a farmer, agriculturalist, environmentalist, and economist that led to last week’s announcement that he will be inducted into the Hall this June.

“John certainly qualified for induction because of his contributions in many areas,” said Reg Cressman, secretary-treasurer of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors.

He specifically lauded Benham for his “innovation and entrepreneurship” and how they contributed to the advancement of agricultural practices – and not just locally, but across the province.

“That’s the lasting legacy inductees such as John leave,” Cressman said.

Benham relayed that he was completely shocked last week when he got a call from an official at the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) informing him of his induction.

“What little hair I’ve got is standing up on end right now,” he said over the phone. Several days later, the magnitude of the achievement was starting to set in.

“It’s a huge honour; an incredible honour,” he said, adding he knows how hard it is to qualify for the Agricultural Hall of Fame. “There’s lots of good people that don’t make it.”

Benham was officially nominated by OSCIA, his employer, but he noted it was his wife and his daughter, Tracey, who tracked down all the necessary information and somehow managed to keep it a secret.

“They pulled it off – I can’t believe it, but they did,” he said. “It was a huge job.”

Benham has lived just outside Rockwood his entire life. His family has a long and storied history in former Eramosa Township.

His great-great grandfather, James Benham, was born in England in 1794, came to Guelph in 1827 and moved to Eramosa five years later. He was a successful farmer and leader in municipal politics, but is remembered most by many for his role in the 1837 rebellion.

John Benham, the oldest of two boys, grew up on and farmed the same land as his parents and grandparents. He graduated in 1951 from the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and returned to the family farm.

“I was lucky enough to get a good education. I could have done whatever I wanted, but I chose to farm,” Benham said. He stressed the importance of an education that combined the theoretical and practical elements of the industry.

“It opened doors for me,” he said of his time at the OAC. “I feel I got one of the best educations you could ever get.”

And so began a lifelong dedication to farming that continues to this day.

He initially made his mark as a dairy farmer and by breeding Holsteins, whose health and production status were enhanced by a ration he devised containing alfalfa with maximized protein content.

Benham was also an early adapter of new crop production practices, such as pure seeding of alfalfa as a high protein source for cattle, ensiling whole cob high moisture corn and designing his own mineral supplement.

He then helped to educate others across Ontario by regularly hosting farm tours for 4-H clubs, Ontario Veterinary College researchers, and crop science and animal science students from the OAC.

“Often someone will come up to me and say, ‘I was at your farm 40 years ago,’ which is very satisfying to me,” he said, looking back at the busier times on his farm.

Benham went on to become a member of the field crops committee of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, where he helped to reorganize the structure of the forage and hay classes and introduced a new horse hay class, taking into consideration the nutritional needs of horses for breeding and performance.

On his own farm, Benham was an early adopter of soil erosion control techniques, of the utilization of manure as a substitute for commercial fertilizer, and of sound woodlot management techniques. He made presentations at major conferences on the environmental and economic benefits of woodlot management.

In 1974, Benham was awarded the OAC Centennial Medal as one of 100 of Ontario’s most important contributors to agriculture.

Off the farm, he worked with a variety of organizations to enhance agricultural practices and training opportunities for producers.

“He was a very gentle and supportive leader, with an ability to cultivate the best in the individuals he worked with,” Cressman said of Benham’s leadership abilities.

“The little things never fazed John because he was steadfast in his pursuit of long-term goals … He was a delight to work with.”

Benham was one of the first “field men” for the Ontario Land Stewardship Program, which was a forerunner of the OSCIA’s Environmental Farm Plan (EFP), for which he serves as an administrator, organizer, and teacher.

He is a director and past president of OSCIA, as well as one of the founders of both the Ontario Forage Council and the Canadian Forage Council, organizations that work to promote excellent forages as key entities in good livestock nutrition and soil enrichment.

In his free time, Benham  enjoys reading, photography, and, most of all, collecting Canadian stamps.

“Canada has such beautiful stamps. It’s very satisfying,” he said.

Benham’s family sold the Eramosa farm in 1988, around the same time he started delivering farm environmental programs for OSCIA and serving as weed inspector and tree commissioner for Wellington County.

“They were just the type of jobs I was looking for. With my agricultural background, I just fit right in,” he said. He laughs when asked if life after “retirement” is busier than ever.

“I feel privileged that my health will allow me to do it … you’re only as old as you think you are,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have these jobs.”

Unlike others in the same positions, Benham doesn’t  embrace a police mentality when acting as weed inspector or enforcing the county’s tree cutting bylaw.

“I’m there to help people do things better … in most cases people will cooperate,” he said.

While Wellington County has a successful pesticide spraying program for rural roadsides, Benham said most municipalities have mistakenly abandoned the process. He was part of a delegation that last month convinced Guelph-Eramosa council to reinstate the practice.

“With some common sense involved, there shouldn’t be a problem,” he said of pesticide use. In fact, there is a list of 25 noxious weeds that Ontario landowners must, by law, control, he added.

Benham has even trained weed inspectors from other jurisdictions and is also a founder and board member of the Ontario Invasive Plant Council, which works to prevent the spread of new and damaging weed species such as giant hogweed.

Some might consider Benham’s position as tree commissioner ironic, considering his great-great grandfather James arrived in Guelph around the same time as founder John Galt, who cut down a large maple tree in 1927 to begin clearing land for the city. And for a time, James helped clear tree stumps on Wyndham Street there.

But John Benham has made a name for himself in his own rite – and then some.

He is, of course, well known throughout the agricultural community in Wellington County. And roots or no roots, he sees no reason for leaving his home in old Eramosa Township.

“I don’t know how you get a much better area,” he said with a smile, noting the high quality farmland as well as his affinity for the village of Rockwood and its proximity to Guelph and Toronto.

And he hopes to keep performing weed inspector and tree commissioner duties for as long as possible.

“So many people contributed over the years to what I wanted to do,” he said. “I feel now it’s my opportunity to help others – and as long as I’m healthy, I’ll continue to do it.”