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A FLARE for agriculture

For FLARE magazine, it was an idea to attract readers. For Amanda Brodhagen, it was a chance to shatter so many farm stereotypes

Advocacy to Amanda Brodhagen means taking action. It’s not just about sharing her farm experiences on social media — although she does plenty of that — it’s about taking time to volunteer at the Beef Farmers of Ontario booth at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair each year as well as serving on the executive of the Junior Farmers’ Association of Ontario and talking up programs that celebrate farms.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Brod­hagen couldn’t resist the opportunity to raise the profile of agriculture by entering the recent Go Get Featured competition hosted by Fido Mobile and online lifestyle magazine, FLARE.

The competition to find nine millennial women “Go-Getters” to feature on asked entrants to share the story of their “passion project” for a chance to win $1,000 towards their project and a trip to Toronto for an all-expenses paid networking dinner, photo shoot and video shoot for the online version of the magazine.

Brodhagen had no difficulty picking her passion project. “It’s to create a mentorship program for women in agriculture,” she says. “I’m a big proponent of that, having had a lot of really good mentors in my life who have helped me get where I am today.”

Building a network

Brodhagen grew up on the family cow/calf operation near Stratford, Ont. and never forgot the transformative experience she had as a mentee with the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) Program. She had wanted to learn more about how to advocate and lobby for agriculture, so CYL paired her with mentor Dr. Lorne Hepworth, an Agricultural Hall of Fame inductee whose track record included several portfolios as a Saskatchewan provincial government minister, and 20-year head of CropLife Canada.

“I attended a formal Genome Canada board meeting, and we would go to events together, and he connected me with people of interest,” Brodhagen says. “We discussed different things and a lot of it was exposure for me to key influencers. I could not have had a better mentor than Lorne.”

Originally, Brodhagen was intent on a career on the policy side of the agricultural industry. She earned a political science degree at the University of Guelph, but after working as an intern for the federal agriculture department in Ottawa one summer, she realized the life of a political staffer wasn’t for her, and that she missed the farm and her rural roots. “That’s when I had more of a strong desire to go back home to the farm and realized that somehow, I wasn’t sure exactly how, but I was going to farm and make a living at it.”

Brodhagen went back to farming alongside her dad and also picked up some off-farm work — a contract position with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA). “At the time it fit in well with my lifestyle,” she says, but there were realities to consider too. “With our farm succession plan, we’re not quite ready to have me home full time, and the type of farm and size also requires some off-farm income.”

When the contract position ended, OFVGA created a part-time position for Brodhagen as digital marketing manager for its publication, the Grower News. “I grew up on a beef cattle farm and here I am working in edible horticulture four days a week, but I really love advocating for farmers on the other half of the dinner plate too,” she says.

The only farm girl to enter

It was that drive to advocate for agriculture that made Brodhagen sit down this past April and pour her heart out in the FLARE submission.

Still, she was surprised to get an email the following week saying she was one of the top applicants.

It turns out she was the only farm girl out of the hundreds of applicants from across Canada.

“They were intrigued about the story of a young woman who’s just five foot tall and doesn’t fit the stereotype of a primary producer,” says the 29-year-old at the family beef farm near Stratford, Ont., that she runs with her dad, Martin.

x photo: David Charlesworth

Brodhagen’s mom Brenda, is a school teacher, who does the farm books and certainly knows how to drive a tractor or pull a calf, and her younger brother Bryan, helps out when needed, but it’s Brodhagen and her dad who are the primary farmers. “We are a father/daughter team that work and make decisions together,” she says. “When we are looking at equipment or stuff like that, he’ll often say ‘I’m going to consult my daughter too.’ That’s important because he’s telling them you’re not selling to me, you’re selling to her too.”

Brodhagen is proud of her independence and knows she is lucky to have such tremendous support from her parents. She knows other young women are pressured to find themselves “a man” in order to take on the responsibility of the farm.

“My parents say, ‘Do what makes you happy and don’t date for the sake of dating or marry for the sake of just marrying. If you find someone, great, if not, do your own thing,’” she says. “Sometimes in a rural community there’s a social expectation, people assume that you’re married or have a boyfriend and infer that you need a partner. I am going to take over the farm one day and I am totally confident in that. If I meet the right person, great, but I’m quite content as I am.”

A dilemma, then a solution

That independent streak, as Brodhagen is ready to admit, does make her a bit overly zealous at times, which is why, although excited by the news that she was a finalist in the FLARE competition, she now faced a dilemma. Her submission said she would like to create the mentorship program in collaboration with the Ag Women’s Network (AWN), a Facebook-based network of almost 2,000 women involved in agriculture that Brodhagen had joined.

The problem was she hadn’t actually talked to them about it.

“I wanted to create this mentorship program through the AWN because the structure is already there,” said Brodhagen. “You have this motivated, energized group of women… (but)… I had overstepped because I never asked for approval from them. I just literally threw this idea out there.”

She needn’t have worried. When she called AWN founder, Jen Christie, to tell her about her submission, Christie thought it was an incredible idea and was fully supportive.

When FLARE called to tell Brodhagen she was a winner, she was working at the small feed mill on the family farm, and she sensed the irony that as she dealt with the high-gloss world of Toronto media, she was worrying about whether she had enough data left on her phone to take the video call.

Teaming up with AWN

After letting AWN know her project had won and that she now had $1,000 to kick it off, Brodhagen connected with one of its leadership team, Joan Craig, a beef farmer and retired schoolteacher who is passionate about mentoring and offered to help her plan and develop the mentorship program.

“I had the opportunity to be mentored and mentor both informally and as part of a formal mentorship program with a new-to-teaching teacher and have always been interested in mentorship,” says Craig. “AWN’s mission statement is to cultivate and connect leaders for a strong agriculture and agri-food industry. This project is a different way to approach that. One of the main goals is empowerment: helping people to get better at something, or grow professionally and personally — which fits in well with our vision.”

Of the hundreds of women who applied to the “Go-Getters” competition across Canada, Brodhagen was the only farmer. photo: David Charlesworth

Although they had lots of big ideas they decided that realistically the project would need to be a pilot program in Ontario for AWN members. They hope it will give them experience and feedback that will allow them to attract more funding and resources in the future and lead to an ongoing mentorship program for ag women.

Grassroots input

They began by surveying AWN members’ level of interest in a mentorship program, asking what the women considered the most important aspects of mentorships in agriculture and looking for suggestions. Expecting maybe 20 or 30 responses, they were happily surprised to get 100.

“We got very concise, thoughtful responses,” says Craig, “We got very grassroots information from people about what kind of information they would want before applying, what they were excited about, or concerns they had, and that really helped us build the program.”

They also got a large percentage of respondents who said they were interested in being a mentee or a mentor, says Craig. “I think that speaks very highly of the AWN and the kind of community we’ve built.”

After analyzing the survey data, Brod­hagen and Craig came up with a draft framework that they then discussed with a small focus group of primary producers and other women from the agricultural industry.

A pilot mentorship program

From there they came up with the final pilot mentorship program to run for eight months from November 2017 to July 2018. Applications closed in September, and mentees were matched with mentors in October. A big emphasis of the program is accessibility and diversity.

Brodhagen drew upon her experience as a graduate mentee of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) program, and borrowed a few ideas like the roadmap that helps mentees set their goals. “AWN mentees will work with their mentors to establish key areas of interest, and those will be outlined in a roadmap document provided by AWN,” says Brodhagen. “The intent of the roadmap is to assist with goal setting and what they are going to do to achieve those goals, and how the mentor is going to specifically help them do that. It’s going to look different for everyone.”

That’s why the FLARE competition was really huge,” Brodhagen says. “To get a non-ag media platform like that, and connect with other young women is really big.” photo: David Charlesworth

Many respondents asked how much time they would need to commit, so the program design is flexible. Mentors commit to activities within a predetermined period of time to help mentees work through their roadmaps. Mentees must have the determination to make the most of their experience in order to complete the program, and be open to sharing their mentorship experience through AWN communications, including a blog post at the end of their mentorships.

“Even though this is a self-led program, we wanted to create some things that were structured,” says Brodhagen. “Because AWN is facilitating this and putting the effort into pairing mentors and mentees, we need to have a benefit for us as an organization. And what better way to communicate all of these things that are happening than in terms of how that mentee and mentor relationship evolved and some of the benefits of that.”

If not me, then who?

Now that all the planning and hard work of developing the mentorship pilot is over, Brodhagen continues to enjoy her communications career and her role as a part-time farmer. One day she will take over the cattle side of things, which is her true passion. “I always say, if not me then who? I think of the types of people that I want producing food and somebody like myself and my family, we really care about what we do,” she says. “I know a lot farmers do, but if we don’t have young people wanting to make a go of it, we’re going to be in trouble and we’re going to be having to rely on other areas or other countries to produce food for us.”

Brodhagen knows there is a whole different generation of consumers out there and sees a lot of potential in connecting with the millennial consumer, and in particular women, who are still proportionally the ones who make the grocery decisions for their families. “That’s why the FLARE competition was really huge, because to get a non-ag media platform like that, and connect with other young women is really big,” she says. “That’s really important and is part of the reason I do what I do, because I really believe in it.”

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Angela Lovell

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