By Trevor Bacque
For many Albertans, their story is intertwined with agriculture. Many of today’s farmers proudly tell stories of their great-grandparents arriving in the province with little more than a set of directions to land stakes. For today’s middle-aged Albertans, another part of their story often involves the oil and gas industry. For Steve Marshman, he is one person who pays homage to both.
The Rockyford, Alta., farmer proudly works the ground broken by his paternal great-great grandfather’s family and maternal great-grandfather’s in addition to the family homestead of his wife Jessica. The deep roots mean Marshman and his wife are related to about half of the county. His great-great grandfather William Marshman’s history in North America goes back to the 1700s when he arrived in Pennsylvania via Europe. Later, he would fight in the U.S. Civil War for Abraham Lincoln’s Union before he relocated to Oregon then settled in Alberta where his sons established the farm in 1909. Today, Marshman and his wife farm with his parents Lloyd and Cheryl, and uncle Gerald. The adjacent farm is run by his cousin Kim Salt. Although the farm roots are deep, they have been a relatively new chapter in Marshman’s working career. For 24 years, Marshman worked in energy, primarily through his specialized coring company Rocking Horse Energy Services. Only in the last decade did his oilfield work overlap with the farm, Rocking Horse Land and Cattle Inc. Today, though, Marshman is focused on the farm and his new business ventures: a farm and ranch supply store as well as an OK Tire store after selling his coring outfit in late 2020.
When Marshman graduated high school in 1994, he went straight to Olds College and procured an agricultural business diploma. It did not take long for the young man to venture north after learning of opportunities in the oil patch near Fort McMurray. There he learned the art of coring after landing a job on a Cora Lynn coring rig. Quickly, he advanced from roughneck to driller to tool push in two years. The specialty of coring within rig work proved to be something Marshman had a knack for and it set him on the path to specialization within the industry.
He helped Dan Zimmer and Neil Brown start and build TerraCore Drilling, a cutting-edge company with automated coring rigs. Under contract he managed the build, design and field supervision of 12 single drilling rigs over a three-year span.
By 2006, word about Marshman’s reputation spread in a good way. He was headhunted to run the drilling division of a Calgary based service company. Within a month the board made him president and CEO with the plan to build a team, design and build amphibious core drilling rigs for muskeg-laden areas around Fort McMurray. The patented initial build was a success with drilling being completed for Suncor.
He was working alongside Goldman Sachs, presenting to its directors to secure funds to build three advanced single rig units and several more coring units. Spending nights at the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park was a far cry from his modest abode back home, but it was evidence of his hard work. With sizable funding acquired, the build began the following year. Everything ran smooth until the Great Financial Crisis hit the marketplace.
“With the build underway in 2007 and rigs contracted, the banking crash in the U.S. in the fall of 2007 sidelined that enterprise,” he explained.
Undeterred, he began Rocking Horse Energy Services in January 2008, a third-party coring company specialized in wire line coring, conventional coring, core packaging, core transport and drilling rig design.
“It’s pretty gratifying work to do,” says Marshman. “It’s a pretty specialized skill to have. Once you know how to do it and do it well it opens a lot of doors.”
The ability to arrive at a rig and offer a full suite of coring services quickly set Rocking Horse apart from virtually all other competitors. Marshman and others within the company designed an all-new wire coring system to provide an intact and complete core. A typical coring setup often involves processing core outside with one to two staff. Marshman had a staff of three or more per shift and the big differentiating factor was a tandem truck that contained a “core shack” complete with wire line systems and the ability to pull a string of pipe.
It became evident, if a company needed an intact core, Rocking Horse was the best bet. With a success rate of 99 per cent recovery, it was not just geologists that were pleased with results. Rocking Horse quickly grew to be the largest coring provider in Western Canada.
In back to back years of 2012/13, Rocking Horse was ranked inside the top 10 of Alberta’s Fast Growth 50 list, which ranks the province’s best businesses. In 2012, he was No. 2, followed by No. 9. His commitment to never skimping on details also earned him Conoco Phillips’ Safety Contractor Awards.
“As far as market share, we kept capturing more and more,” he says. “There was a time we were on pretty much every project in Fort McMurray, every potash project in Saskatchewan and even gas in Quebec. We provided a top-notch service, had the best equipment out there and an amazing group of guys. We were the go-to for tough wells.”
Whether it was potash, salt or oil formations, there were simply no samples too difficult to recover. Marshman estimates he pulled more than 100,000 metres of core samples in the last quarter century.
Rocking Horse completed work in the U.S. and set up an Australian coring division in Queensland. Exploratory work was conducted in the Middle East, but never materialized as the industry was beginning to slow and contracts were disproportionately saddled with risk and not reward. He always used farming tips to keep numbers conservative so they work even in tough times.
Around the time oilfield work was moving along routinely, his father was looking for a change and Marshman entertained the idea of returning to the farm with serious thought in 2010 to be closer to his growing family.
“It was a juggle,” he says. “Dad was wanting to retire from the crop side of things.”
Marshman officially came on board in 2011 and, true to form, he wasted no time moving the farm in a direction he felt was necessary for his family. With his dad, father-in-law, uncle and neighbour all retiring over a few years, the 700-acre grain farm quickly grew to 3,200. He continues to have his father and uncle help during seeding, spraying and harvest. His 94-year-old grandpa is also still a familiar face at the farm, although most of his efforts these days are poured into his sprawling vegetable garden, which, when ripened, are all harvested and trucked into Calgary’s Mustard Seed or Grace House in Drumheller for those experiencing homelessness.
The dark brown soils work particularly well for him and his crop rotations, which he prefers to have at least a one-in-four-year rotation with canola. He tries hard to have a strong chemical rotation, and also prefers to use the LibertyLink system for an additional chemistry break. Along with a consistent lack of tillage, Marshman prefers to keep sprayer passes down to two per field per year.
“With minimum till the last 20 to 25 years, it’s really made a difference for growing crops on side hills that never would have grown much in the past,” he says. “I’m working on pet projects to grow my sloughs a bit, re-grassing around them for just to keep the chemistry away from the sloughs and the watershed. Uncle Gerald has always said we are just caretakers of the land for the next generation and I firmly believe that improving watersheds and habitat are part of that.”
He continues to improve the land and the farm believing strongly in the five per cent rule; a small change now can pay dividends in the future. He has been working with various new apps to improve record keeping, budgeting and management of the farm. Next year he may look at changing up his calving facilities and increase his land base depending on the rental market, as well. “Steady as she goes,” he says.
Marshman quickly got another entrepreneurial itch in 2013 through a non-agricultural opportunity. He had busted tires through college and felt there was a need in Strathmore. This time, with a local friend, they started Boots and Boost Inc., providing tires, farm service, customization and mechanical work, which later morphed into buying into OK Tire to leverage national buying power and optimization.
By early 2015 the oilfield was really experiencing upheaval, which Marshman attributes to changes in both provincial and federal governments. Companies began to shift priorities, too. Less wells were being drilled, industry consolidation accelerated and Marshman found himself at a crossroads.
“I was looking to diversify a bit, just to keep busier in the summertime,” he says. “The last several years there was no summer work in the patch, and we lose guys because they need steady income. It’s hard on guys, hard on morale. You have to be honest [with yourself].”
With interest continuing to grow on the farm side, Marshman’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. He took his signature Rocking Horse name and shifted it into a brand-new business by 2017—a farm and ranch store, Rocking Horse Industries’ The Farm & Ranch Source store, situated in Strathmore.
The store began with about 100 retail items, but that quickly grew as the local community shifted support to Marshman’s independent business. Today, the store retails more than 1,000 items and with a “really good group” of seven staff, the priority is geared towards high-end farm products, typical of Marshman’s business philosophy of having satisfied customers.
“Everything I’ve done with business is sell the best thing I can,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily on price, it’s on quality, service and what it accomplishes for a customer. I took the same focus to this store. No smoke, no mirrors. This is the best there is, it makes it easy to sell.”
One of the latest products Marshman has focused on is helping famers improve connectivity through AyrMesh , a theoretical WiFi shield up to eight kilometres wide over your farm to tie in all bins, calving and security cameras all designed to give full bars of service on your phone for almost a kilometre in any direction from the hub.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, do stuff the other guys aren’t,” he says. “I look for great products and take it to next level.”
His love of the farm is equally matched with interacting with people who are working through an issue, finding a solution and then delivering a quality product for it.
“Not a lot of grass grows under my feet,” says Marshman. “I enjoy meeting people and sales, I look forward to that.”
Interests in his ventures closer to home, it came time to close a big chapter in his life. In September 2020, he formally sold Rocking Horse Energy Services to two longtime employees. The company’s focus will not change, but Marshman has moved on.
“I had an opportunity, made an offer to the guys, they accepted,” says Marshman matter-of-factly.
His focus now is to grow all three ventures: the farm, the tire shop and the farm store. Always eager to grow and challenge himself, Marshman says the door is wide open to adding a second farm store or OK Tire location. His four children, ages eight to 14, are getting bigger now and increasingly curious about farming, which means more hands-on help around the yard along with his nephews, as well. It’s a true family affair at the Marshman farm.
“I got a great wife, Jessica, and she does awesome with the kids,” he says. “I’m trying to be around the home more for that. There were lots of time where I was just on the road and I’m trying to change that up a bit. The kids are getting old enough now that they will be more and more involved on the farm. My kids and nephews like to work on the farm, as they get older that will take a lot of pressure off. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great team at the shops, so when it is harvest and seeding, I can rely on people to keep things rolling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”