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Wheat Growers build ‘top board’ performance

It’s no accident the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association gets 
high marks for the quality of its board of farmer directors

Filling board seats is never an easy task. Your top prospects may be reluctant to offer their time, especially if both spouses are busy raising a family in addition to their farming and off-farm careers. Others are already fully committed, or even over-committed in other off-farm roles.

Yet the other harsh reality is that even with a full slate of directors, there’s no guarantee the board will be effective. Just getting enough bodies to fill the chairs isn’t enough. Relationships can sour. The board may break apart into cliques. Or your members may not bring the expertise and commitment that you need.

Somehow the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association has managed to avoid these pitfalls. They’ve stacked their board with people passionate about policy. They encourage open discussion while staying focused on their mandate.

Whatever you think of their stance on policy issues, they seem to have mastered the art of organizational leadership.

So what makes their board effective?

They know what they stand for

Based in Winnipeg, the group’s executive director Blair Rutter says he knows where the answer starts. The Western Canadian Wheat Growers doesn’t chase the latest issue, or get sidetracked by the most recent headlines.

Instead, Rutter says, the group has strong core values of open, competitive markets, and “allowing farmers the freedom to manage their business. It’s very much a free-enterprise orientation.”

“And it does make for clear policy developments,” Rutter says. “You can always test any policy issue against those core principles.”

For example, the Wheat Growers was one of the few farm groups calling for the federal government to lift the order-in-council on grain movement, chair Jim Wickett says.

“The market was showing that it’s time,” says Wickett, who farms near Rosetown, Sask. “And we’re not ones for having government involvement. We’d like to see the government out of a lot of things.”

Wickett joined after talking to Gerrid Gust, a director with the group. The Wheat Growers seemed like his kind of group, he says.

“You don’t want the government in your way,” says Wickett. “All you want to do is, you want to farm and produce a good crop and be able to sell it on your terms, at your price.”

Not every Prairie farmer will agree with the philosophy, but the group’s clear stance and shared values means they recruit like-minded directors, which makes for a united board of directors.

Even when directors disagree, their core values are aligned. “So we may disagree on nuances of policy. And that’s fine,” says Rutter.

The extra benefit, adds Rutter, is a lack of internal politics and strife within the Wheat Growers.

They recruit the right people

Ask Rutter what he looks for in potential directors, and a passion for farming is No. 1. Throw in a keen interest in policy, and you just might have a new Wheat Grower director.

People who are passionate about farming and policy are engaged, says Rutter. “And that’s another benefit I have on my board, I have directors who are very much engaged in the issues. I share a lot of information with them and they give a lot of feedback to me.”

But directors aren’t the only ones intent on reforming policy in the Wheat Growers.

“I see where policy matters. It can have a tremendous bearing on farm profitability,” says Rutter.

Rutter joined the Wheat Growers because he wanted to improve agriculture for farmers, he says. He grew up on a farm himself and worked in banking before going back to school to earn a graduate degree in agricultural economics.

The presidents that Rutter has worked with have skills he doesn’t, such as being persuasive in a crowd of farmers, he says. Rutter tends to be quite technical and analytical, he explains. “I provide them the information that allows them to be effective leaders.”

Wickett also embodies many of the traits the Wheat Growers look for when recruiting directors.

“I treat (farming) like it’s my profession. And I like the fact that literally no two days are the same,” says Wickett. He adds he farms 24/7. “I do enjoy other things, too. But it’s just this is what I do.”

Wickett has been farming since 1984 on what is now a fourth-generation farm. He started out farming with his dad, and now farms with his wife and two young daughters.

These days, along with chairing the Wheat Growers, Wickett sits on the Western Standards Committee. The committee reviews grading issues and makes recommendations. He says he’s constantly learning through his policy work, and that work often clears up his own misperceptions.

Yet the other distinguishing trait of the Wheat Growers board, aside from its unity, is its youth.

Again, Rutter and Wickett make it clear that this didn’t just happen. It’s a strategic choice.

Directors range in age from mid-20s to mid-40s, with Rutter putting the average age between 30 and 35 years. Rutter says that although the Wheat Growers includes members of all ages, when it comes to the directors, they “seek out young farmers who have a passion for this business and a passion for policy. And that’s deliberate.”

The thinking is that the younger set is the future of agriculture, Rutter explains. Recruiting people who are young and passionate makes for forward-thinking policy.

They know how to appeal to young farmers

Recruiting young farmers is a challenge, because they’re often busy with their families and farms, says Rutter. They tend to focus on agronomics and grain marketing, and rightly so.

So the first step is to get young farmers at Wheat Grower conventions where they can see the value of the networking, says Rutter. They’ve also hired a summer student to focus on recruiting young farmers as members. The goal is to position themselves as the go-to organization for young farmers with a positive attitude about the business, Rutter says.

“I’m the old man in the whole group,” Wickett says, chuckling. He says having a young board is “awesome,” especially as the chair. “You sit back and kind of let these guys go. And so I guess, at times I’m the guy going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I remember the ’80s.’ And they’re looking at me like, ‘I wasn’t born then.’”

Wickett says the board is lively and engaged. He adds there are some analytical minds in the group who can “get down to the nuts and bolts” of federal programs such as Agri-Stability. Others are strong in crop insurance and marketing.

As for his part, Wickett brings leadership experience to the group. He served 13 years on municipal council, coached high school football for 17 years, and was president of the local Kinsmen club and senior hockey club.

Those years of experience have taught Wickett a thing or two about leadership. During his time on municipal council, Wickett worked with a reeve who had “a real gentle, calming influence. And he would let the discussion go… He’d have his say, but he’d let everyone else have their say first.”

They foster a “culture of dissent”

Every board needs to develop a culture of dissent, Rutter says. Welcoming disagreement around the boardroom table is “vital because you always come up with a stronger position (and) you’re not overlooking something.”

Despite the directors’ philosophical unity, Rutter says they have strong discussions on issues, most recently the order-in-council on grain transportation.

“The one thing I do like about our group is that no one seems to put their fist down and say this is the way we need to do it. This is how I want it done.  Everything’s done kind of by consensus,” says Wickett. He adds there might be certain issues he doesn’t agree with everyone on, but he can live with it.

As chair, part of Wickett’s job is to facilitate discussion. Wickett says the chair needs to let the discussion take place, while “steering it a little bit if you have to, or keep it corralled back to the topic at hand.”

Wickett says he’s seen other boards where the chair already has his mind made up. “And there’s no changing it. And you kind of wonder why you had the meeting.”

They keep everyone in the loop

The board communicates within their shop a lot, says Rutter, which means everyone is singing from the same song sheet on policy issues.

For example, Rutter will draft a press release on an issue. He’ll then send it to all the directors for input. Then three directors have to sign off — the president, the chair, and the chair of the committee the press release relates to.

“And so in the end, you have a final product, a press release, that everyone has seen. You know your position. And they buy into it,” Rutter says.

The board meets three times each year face-to-face, and has about three board conference calls. And they email daily. Rutter says that process works for the Wheat Growers because they’re busy, and can’t have many face-to-face meetings.

The Wheat Growers are also clear about who is serving what role. As the president, Levi Wood is the chief spokesperson on policy, Rutter says. Wickett, as the chair, handles the administration side of the Wheat Growers, and works directly with Rutter. Wickett describes Rutter as the point man, especially when directors are busy in the spring and fall, and only have time for phone calls or email.

This system frees the president to handle media calls and stay on top of policy issues.

“To us, separating those functions is good because it’s making sure not all that burden is placed on one individual,” says Rutter.

Ultimately, Rutter says it’s hard to put a finger on what makes an effective leader. But along with passion, communication is important, he says. Good leaders are authentic and believe in what they’re saying, he adds. “They inspire.”

Policy pet peeves

Grain movement tops both Blair Rutter and Jim Wickett’s lists of policy pet peeves.

Wickett says the transportation file raises his ire, not only with crops, but everything that’s moved by rail in Western Canada.

“I just find the two national railways almost very complacent. Very much a duopoly,” Wickett says. Wickett adds that, in his opinion, Western Canada’s economic development has been held back by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

“Look at the trucking business. That is an open and competitive market,” says Rutter, adding he doesn’t spend any time on trucking business regulation. “If you get competition in any sector, then farmers will be well served.”

New trade deals giving Canada access to overseas meat markets should mean more opportunity for Canadian farmers, Rutter and Wickett say. Rutter says growth in the livestock industry would mean less grain moving by rail.

That drives the Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ support of open and free trade, Rutter says.

“We want to get to that world where CP and CN are coming to us, saying, ‘We want to haul more grain.’ Or grain companies are trying to bid for our grain because too much of it is going elsewhere,” says Rutter.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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