BRIGHTON, COLORADO, US — Ben Handcock, a wheat grower and longtime executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council revered as “a true friend of the wheat industry,” died April 11 at his home in Brighton. He was 74 years old.
Known personally as an outgoing family man, Handcock brought the same passion to his work to advance the wheat industry by uniting its stakeholders, his colleagues said.
“Ben had the responsibility of working with and bringing together all segments of the wheat industry from wheat breeders, farmers, millers and bakers,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat. “He had the approach of trying to improve the industry for all of their interests with an unforgettable personality and passion that was unmatched.”
Raised on a South Dakota wheat farm, Handcock graduated from Kadoka High School in 1963 and received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural industries management from Colorado State University in Fort Collins five years later.
For the better part of two decades, he worked as a farmer and rancher in his home state. In 1984, he was hired as the director of rural development with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. A year later, Handcock accepted the executive director position with the South Dakota Wheat Commission, where he was integral to market development, wheat research and promotional programs for nearly eight years.
In February 1992, Handcock took the reins of the Wheat Quality Council from Thomas C. Roberts, who had led the organization from its 1980 inception with the merger of the Wheat Improvement Association and the Hard Winter Wheat Quality Advisory Council.
At his appointment, the WQC search committee praised his enthusiasm for the industry, writing that “Handcock brings to the Council the enthusiasm and experience to succeed in accomplishing our objectives.”
While Handcock’s background was as a producer, he studied and was passionate about the other segments of the business, said Dave Green, who succeeded Handcock as director of the WQC.
“When he got the Council job, he was considered a part of the grower group,” Green said. “So, he came to know the milling and baking side on the job,” and was an advocate for the whole industry.
Handcock would go on to serve in the role for more than 25 years, arranging and managing annual meetings and shepherding the annual wheat tours through hard winter and hard spring wheat regions. He took on the role of mentor and made an effort to include tour newcomers from all along the supply chain.
“I remember specifically the people who took time with me when I was new to the business,” Green said. “Ben was one of those guys that always made sure that people new to the tour got to ride with people who would teach them the most. I remember always appreciating that, that he wanted to take care of new people in the business.”
During Handcock’s quarter-century leading wheat tours across Kansas, North Dakota and nearby growing areas, he innovated and formalized some of the scouting techniques and made yearly comparisons a possibility for the first time, Green said.
“During his time, we went to a better statistical model than we had, which was just on a board erased after the meeting,” Green said. “When Ben came in, we started to collect better data, use formulas, use yardsticks and keep track of year-to-year data. A lot of those records from the early tours just wasn’t available, but Ben saw the value in keeping that data over time.”
Others praised his enthusiasm for imparting the knowledge gained over a lifetime.
“Ben was a great teacher, and great teachers are the most important people in our lives,” said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations with Kansas Wheat. “The students in his ‘wheat classroom’ came from all walks of life in different states and countries.”
After 25 years at the helm, Handcock stepped down from the council in 2017, retiring to his Fort Lupton, Colorado, US, home where he later moved to nearby Brighton.
“He led us through some tough times,” Green said. “The membership now is healthier than when he started. The milling and baking industries and the grower groups don’t always agree on everything but being able to agree on some things was always very helpful and wheat quality was one of those things” Handcock pushed as a common goal.
In late 2017, Handcock was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer that already had spread to the bone. He began chemotherapy treatments that year in nearby Thornton, Colorado, US. His wife, Patsy, kept friends and family updated on his status through a CaringBridge blog that also included messages directly from Handcock.
“Am able to do everything I could do before the diagnosis,” he wrote three months after completing chemo. “I play golf, travel and pretty much do whatever I want. Praying that I continue like this.”
By late 2018, Handcock’s cancer had returned. He underwent immunotherapy and further rounds of chemotherapy in 2019 but was still able to hit the links for a round of golf with his wife “between doctor visits,” the couple wrote.
This spring, Handcock wrote that he was not approved for a clinical trial due to heart damage. His wife later wrote that intense side effects precluded further treatments. She announced his death at the site April 11, telling readers “Ben went to his Heavenly home this evening. He fought the good fight. He told me many times that he had a wonderful life. He enjoyed his family, and the many friends he made throughout his lifetime.”
Word spread via an Easter weekend message of praise and pride from Reid Christopherson, current executive director of the SDWC: “What a glorious Easter sunrise it will be for Ben! I was very proud to call him a wonderful colleague, friend and cousin! Although greatly missed, we Praise the Lord that he has escaped his pain!”
In a message to friends of the WQC, Green said, “He was a true friend of the industry and a close personal friend to many of us. I have always been drawn to people that are positive, outgoing and comfortable in their own skin. He was all of that.”
Handcock was a family man who “loved a good cigar and a good beer and certainly was an every-man type of guy” who “has always been true to being Ben,” friends and colleagues said.
“The phrase ‘one of a kind’ has become a cliche, but it could have been defined by Ben Handcock,” Gilpin said. “He was a peer, a respected resource and a dear friend who will be missed.”
Survivors include his wife, Patsy; two sons, Milton (Lisa) and Marlon (Julie); a daughter, Noell Uhlir; nine grandchildren and 17 great- grandchildren.