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In 1956, Thomas Koehler (TK) Biggs, an MIT graduate raised in Chappaqua, New York, moved to the wilds of east-central Alberta and started TK Ranch. Tom told many stories of his first trip to the wild prairie that would become his home.
Tom spent time working on a dude ranch in Arizona in the early 1950s and fell in love with the lifestyle. He decided he wanted to become a rancher so started looking for land to make his dream come true. His search brought him to Alberta where he landed a job in Banff working for a local livery stable while he looked for a place to buy. While he was there, the movie River of No Return was being filmed. It starred Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Tom was a horse wrangler for the film and was asked to play a bit part in the movie. He was there when a famous set of photographs were taken of Marilyn Monroe with an RCMP officer. After the photo shoot, Tom asked the photographer if he could get one of the prints. This photo (pictured) hung in Tom's office for the rest of his life.
While in Banff, Tom met a fellow from Coronation who knew about a ranch for sale in the area. Eager to purchase a place, Tom hopped on a train and headed out to the hinterlands of east-central Alberta. He fell in love with the vastness of the open grasslands and bought the ranch. It was a cold February afternoon in 1956 when Tom arrived to move into his new home, he was only 27 years old. His neighbour, Harold Milne, met him at the train station in Coronation. That winter the area had received record snowfalls so they set out by horse and sleigh. Tom said that they headed south into what seemed like a completely uncharted ocean of snow. No roads, no ditches, no fence posts, no trail. Just snow. At 11:30 PM, after changing teams three times, he arrived at the remote farmyard that would become TK Ranch. That winter was fiercely cold and the snow hung on until May. Many of the locals considered Tom a greenhorn and thought he wouldn’t last his first winter. But Tom took it all in stride because he thought all Canadian winters were supposed to be that way.
Soon after Tom got settled, he started looking for cattle to purchase. He was told that local pioneer Jack Hallett had quality stock he so headed to his farm by Fleet. While he was there, he Met Jack's daughter Mary and after a whirlwind romance they were married. Mary had been raised in true pioneer fashion where she'd hauled water for washing, canned thousands of jars of vegetables, fruit, chicken, beef and pork every year, cooked scratch meals on a wood stove and appreciated a well broke horse. Her pioneer skills helped Tom adapt to living on the wild prairie and he became an established rancher in the area. Tom and Mary raised five children: Ralph, Dylan, Andrea, John and David. Over the years they instilled a love and respect for endangered wild prairie in their children. Tom had an open mind about alternative ways of managing the land that enhanced the grasslands and biodiversity. Mary was an artist and outspoken advocate for the wild prairie and captured the spirituality of the land in her beautiful paintings that she sold all over the world.
In addition to ranching, Tom was committed to representing rural Alberta in matters of health. He became Chairman of the Big Country Health Unit in 1969 and maintained this position for 20 years. He became involved with the Alberta Hospital Association in 1971 and sat as their President in 1979. His commitment to the health of Albertans was recognized as he was asked to serve as a lay councilor on the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1979 where he served for 15 years. Tom also served as a Board Trustee for the Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, a member of the Provincial Health Council of Alberta and a member of the Alberta Labour Relations Board. He held many other positions, too many to list, always making it clear he was from rural Alberta.
Tom and Mary's second son, Dylan, was born to be a rancher. Growing up on TK Ranch, he was always keen to learn from his father and grandfather and was involved in all aspects of the operation. After attending Olds College and the University of Lethbridge, Dylan returned to manage the ranch which allowed Tom to focus more attention on his health related activities. In 1985, Dylan was introduced to Holistic Management, a goal oriented decision making model that's based on environmental, social and financial sustainability. The Center for Holistic Management, founded by Allan Savory, was one of the first organizations that advocated making decisions with a triple bottom line. That sound decisions can't be based on profit only, the environmental and social consequences of a decision also must be considered. Dylan became the President of the Canadian Centre for Holistic Management in 1987. He was involved in organizing some of the first Holistic Management clinics in Canada promoting it as a as a sustainable approach to land management. In 1990, Dylan was invited to speak about Holistic Management at a Nature Trust of Alberta meeting in Edmonton and that's where he met his future wife Colleen Nelson.
Dylan and Colleen made a good match. Colleen was an active member of the environmental community in Alberta. At that time, she sat on the boards of both the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. She'd attended the University of Alberta and graduated with a degree in Recreation Administration, what is an Environmental Sciences degree today. Holistic management intrigued Colleen as she'd studied integrated resource management and the problems it created managing intact ecosystems. Meeting a rancher dedicated to conserving the endangered Northern Fescue Grasslands, as well as to organic production and animal welfare, made her decision to move to TK Ranch an easy one.
Dylan and Colleen settled on an old homestead on the south end of TK Ranch and began building a life together. Like many farm families, making a living from agriculture was difficult financially. Dylan was managing the ranch full-time and couldn't get an off-farm job. Colleen was busy having babies and being a mom. To make ends meet they grew a huge garden, canned vegetables and fruit and milked a family cow. They raised five daughters on the wild prairie, 4 of their own and one they happily adopted: Jocelyn, Julia, Maria, Tiffany and Hannah.
In 1995, Dylan and Colleen started direct marketing grass-fed and finished beef to add value to their livestock. After almost three decades, and overcoming unbelievable adversity, they're one of the only ranch families in Canada to be completely vertically integrated. They steward their land and livestock, own a small on-farm government inspected abattoir as well and cutting and processing facilities on land near Calgary. It's truly a pasture to plate business!
Today TK Ranch is a busy place. Dylan continues to manage all aspects of the ranch from calving to grass-finishing to overseeing their abattoir. Colleen manages all ranch administration, social media, website development and employees as well their cutting facility by Calgary. Jocelyn, with her husband Andre, managed their pasture pork and laying hens until recently. They moved closer to Calgary so that Jocelyn could assist Colleen with managing their cutting facility. Julia is currently managing their pasture pork operation and laying hens and assists Dylan with other ranch activities. She hopes to take over management of the ranch one day. Maria is very involved selling residential solar programs all over North America and visits the ranch often. Tiffany is finishing her education to become a nurse and lives on the family's property near Calgary. Hannah is an artist and graduated as an esthetician. She currently works in Edmonton for her uncle John at Optimum Health Vitamins.
Mary passed away in 2006 and Tom in 2018. They were both active on TK Ranch their entire lives and left a legacy of land stewardship that lives on through their children and grandchildren. They are both much loved and sadly missed.