Building a career in the grain industry, from the pavement up

Is Charlene Bradley a template for a new generation of farmers?

Working in the grain industry had seemed an unlikely choice for Charlene Bradley. “If someone had said to me in Grade 12 that I’d be living on a farm and managing a grain elevator,” she now says, “I would’ve looked at them like they had three heads.”

After all, growing up in Edmonton didn’t provide much exposure to agriculture. Probably it provided even less exposure than farmers might think.

But Charlene surprised herself — and perhaps a few others as well — by launching a career in the grain industry. And it turns out her life experience has given her a unique view of agriculture which has served both her and the industry well.

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That’s why Country Guide caught up with Charlene earlier this winter at the Canola Council of Canada’s conference in Banff. With its theme “Set Your Sights Higher,” it turns out the conference couldn’t have been a better match for our discussion, starting with our wanting to know how a city kid morphs into a trailblazer in agriculture.

The first step

Charlene’s journey to the farm started with a fateful invitation from a college friend who hailed from rural Saskatchewan. The friend suggested Charlene visit her hometown one weekend. Through that friend, Charlene met her future husband, Scott Bradley.

While farmers might wonder how city people perceive them, Charlene says that in her experience, urbanites don’t spend much time thinking about or discussing farmers. “Maybe city people should take more of an interest, but it’s just not something that’s part of their day-to-day,” she says.

Charlene didn’t hold many preconceptions of what farmers were like, either. Things that might seem mundane to long-time rural residents were interesting to her. For example, it was striking, when she first settled in rural Saskatchewan, that there was this collective weather obsession. Producers were interested in not only their own rain gauges, but their neighbours’ as well. Knowing what she knows now, it makes perfect sense, she says, adding it was one of her first “ah-ha moments.”

Leaving the city did require some adjustments. One of the biggest was letting go of the convenience of city life. Having to drive an hour round-trip was a contrast to urban living, where everything she wanted was at her fingertips, she explains.

Today, Charlene says her life is full and she’s very happy. “So that tells me my decision was a good one.”

The Bradleys grow everything from canola to lentils. Charlene describes the farm as a partnership, where she and Scott discuss decisions together. They also have their own roles. Charlene focuses on the books and paperwork, and she’ll hop into the combine after work. Scott, who is the career farmer, does most of the marketing and handles agronomics, including crop planning and inputs.

Scott and Charlene have three children, and their oldest, a son, is set to graduate high school this year. While he’s expressed interest in farming, Charlene doesn’t want her kids to feel obligated to farm. So she and Scott are encouraging them to go out and experience the world before they decide to come back.

“And this way when they do come back, everyone will know it’s because they truly love it.”

Working with Scott on the farm has given her a deep appreciation for agriculture.

“Feeding the world, as my husband says, it’s a great opportunity in life to be able to do that. And so I’ve had an even better opportunity, I think, than a lot of producers because I’ve had the farm education,” she says.

City to combine to boardroom

The conference agenda is packed here in Banff, but on the last day we have managed to carve out some time during a break. The other delegates have congregated in the foyer outside the conference room and their voices bounce off the Fairmont’s stone walls. We find a relatively quiet spot in a nearby ballroom, where hotel staff are finishing lunch setup.

The walls and ceiling are blue and gilded gold, in that style you often see in old railway hotels. In a modern hotel, it would be gaudy, but in the Fairmont Banff Springs, it evokes a historical luxury.

Charlene is comfortable in this opulent setting, and I get the sense that she finds a way to be comfortable wherever she is. If she has found a way to balance rural and urban, it isn’t the only kind of balance she has achieved, and it makes me wonder if she is a template for successful women in agriculture.

She’s easy to talk to. But she thinks about what she’s saying.

She’s not loud or brash. But she doesn’t come across as meek either. She radiates quiet confidence.

At the same time, she has a straightforward, down-to-earth manner that I’m sure serves her well in rural Saskatchewan.

The point, I think, is that it’s not only her knowledge that matters, although that’s obviously important too. It’s those personal attributes of attitude, poise, and self-assurance.

But even with those strengths, I can’t help wondering: how does a young woman from Edmonton adapt to life on a farm near Stranraer, in west-central Saskatchewan?

Ultimately, not having any preconceived ideas about the grain industry might have been a good thing, Charlene says. “I was told when it’s bad, it’s devastating, but when it’s good, it’s like you won the lottery.”

“We got through our tough years early on and things are going well now.”

They are simple words, and maybe not quite what you would expect from a woman who is a certified management accountant and who has had so much management experience. Shouldn’t she be telling me about business objectives and equity ratios?

But when I listen closely, there’s a different kind of precision.

I ask, didn’t she ever wonder whether moving out to the farm was the right decision?

Her answer begins with her saying that everybody wonders at times about the decisions they’ve made. She’s had her moments too, she admits. But as her husband told her, “It’s only geography. And he’s 100 per cent right.”

Know the numbers

Charlene has also spent 13 years working in the grain industry. An accountant by trade, she started out as chief financial officer with the nearby Prairie West Terminal, which at that time was an independent, farmer-owned grain handling facility.

The Bradley children were starting school at that time, and Prairie West was close and convenient, Charlene says. She soon found that working at an independent terminal offered unique benefits.

“Because we were an independently owned terminal, you learned the grain industry from start to finish as opposed to being in a mainline company, where you’re only seeing a small piece of a larger pie,” she says. Prairie West gave her the opportunity to work on many different, exciting projects, she adds.

In 2005, Prairie West was part of a consortium that bought a Vancouver terminal the Competition Bureau had forced Agricore United to divest. Charlene says learning about the port side of the industry was fascinating. How business dealings were run was interesting, she adds, and she compares working with the unions to the clash between urban and rural.

“It’s so much more than what we deal with just bringing your grain to the elevator and selling it at the farm gate,” she says.

After nine years with Prairie West, during which time she served as CFO and interim CEO, Charlene left to do contract accounting for various agricultural companies. She then took a job as general manager at a Parrish and Heimbecker terminal near Biggar, Sask.

Today, her career has come full circle, as she’s back managing Prairie West, which was purchased by CWB in 2014.

“It’s been a wonderful experience because I’ve been sought out to do that,” she says of the move back to Prairie West. “I’ve been very blessed in my career.”

Moving from accounting to managing elevators hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Some areas in agriculture are approaching gender parity, or even have more women than men. But there aren’t many female elevator managers out there, Charlene says, and some people aren’t used to seeing a woman fill that role.

“You can see that there’s some uncomfortableness or awkwardness with others. So that did take some getting used to. But it’s not something that bothers me as much as I think it bothers other people,” she says. And, she adds, it’s exciting to lay the groundwork for future generations.

After serving on SaskCanola’s policy committee for two years, Charlene threw her hat in the ring for a seat on the board. She became a director in December 2014.

“I would like to think I bring a different perspective,” says Charlene of her role as a director.

And that she does. She gets to live and breathe the farm life, from seeding to harvest, she says. And she’s seen the industry “from farmgate to tidewaters.”

“I’ve had an enormous opportunity that a lot of people in the industry, as well as on the farm, don’t get exposed to,” she says.

The future looks bright

I talk to Charlene again after the conference, and she says that she’s optimistic about the future of agriculture. There’s more research and innovation happening now than ever before, she says, and many young people are gravitating towards agriculture.

When Charlene relocated to the farm, agriculture was in a downturn. But she and Scott toughed it out, and she’s glad to see younger farmers in her area thriving.

Young farmers in her area have taken advantage of local oilfield activity, she says, often doing both for a while. “What they do seem to do is they build up some wealth with the oilfield and then they gravitate to just farming.”

But she also knows that the game has evolved since she first joined the farm. In general, farmers have always known how to do business, but today they are even more business savvy, which should help given the current price slump.

Today’s farmers are also better planners than they were even five or 10 years ago, and with dual marketing in the West, they are even more on top of pricing and contracting, she says.

Coming from an urban setting, Charlene faced a steep learning curve, but it’s been a worthwhile education, and she never felt that her city upbringing would prevent her from being able to master it if she applied herself.

“Keep an open mind about life,” she now tells young women. “You never know where it will take you.”

This article originally appeared as “A place on the farm” in the April 2015 issue of Country Guide

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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