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Mentorships get real

Today’s mentorships are more relevant than ever, with a focus that includes business management, risk analysis, employee motivation and much more

Across Canada, the beef sector is earning praise for its industry-leading mentorship programs, delivered by producers like Saskatchewan’s Aaron and Adrienne Ivey.

On the traditional family farm, parents, grandparents and other family members have always been the mentors for those who follow, and agriculture today owes a tremendous debt to them for having trained generation after generation of new farmers.

But today is also different. Canada’s farms are more complex than ever, and they’re only getting more complicated as time goes on. And today’s new farmers face different challenges than those of their farming parents.

It isn’t that Mom and Dad no longer have anything to teach their sons and daughters. It’s that, in order to get a complete education, more young farmers and new farmers are having to acquire new skills, and they’re having to look beyond the farm for the mentors to teach them.

That’s why Adrienne and Aaron Ivey have both been mentors in separate mentorship programs, and why they believe so strongly in the power of mentorships to help young producers grow the ag industry in Canada.

It’s also a signal that the next generation is up to the job, says Adrienne, who raises cattle with Aaron on his family’s farm near Ituna, Sask.

When they opt for mentorship, she says, “They’re doing it because it’s a conscious choice. It’s not just bred into them.”

If I’d known then what I know now

For 12 months, Adrienne mentored 26-year-old Angela Kumlin, who together with husband Matt (28) raise a commercial and purebred herd on Matt’s family cattle ranch near Cochrane, Alta.

Adrienne didn’t hesitate to become a mentor for the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) program because she remembers what it was like starting out in beef production herself, having grown up on a grain farm.

“I couldn’t help thinking, what if I would have known all the things I know now when I first started?” she says. “Aaron’s parents and family have been enormous mentors for us, as well as my family, but we’ve learned a lot of lessons from making mistakes. Those have been great learning opportunities for us, and any time that we can pass that learning on, that’s a wonderful thing.

“The beef industry is competitive, but it’s also very nurturing,” Adrienne adds. “There is no sense withholding information, because that won’t do the industry any good. It’s important to share all of our knowledge as widely as we can, and that’s what’s great about these programs.”

The CYL program started as a pilot in Alberta six years ago, and since then has become a flagship program of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which now attracts around 70 applicants a year from all across Canada. That number is whittled down to 24 and then a selection committee brings it down to the final 16 who are interviewed by a selection panel that questions them about their learning goals, and matches each up with a mentor who has the appropriate skills and personality to help them achieve their goals. “The CYL is a program that many other industries want to use as a model to base similar programs on, so that’s a compliment to the program’s level of interest and relevance,” says Jill Harvie, CYL program manager.

The CYL selection committee is made up of individuals who are well connected and have a large network of contacts in the beef industry, and they are usually able to come up with names of people who are a good fit as mentors. That’s important because each year’s mentees are different and have different goals. But mentors all have some common attributes that are vital to the success of the program. “Mentors obviously need to have the skills and life experience that the mentees are looking for, but they also need to be willing to share their network,” says Harvie. “So that means inviting mentees to meet other people at their place of business, or at conferences, or meetings, or events and help them make connections in the industry.”

Mentees go through a rigorous selection process, and first and foremost they need to demonstrate a passion for the Canadian beef industry. “We look for a self-starter and public speaker, who shows good leadership skills, and has the professionalism that is required to be a representative of the Canadian beef industry at international and domestic events,” says Harvie. “We are looking at investing in people who want to have a long-term, beef-related career, or be a beef producer, and be involved in the betterment of the industry and be an advocate for the industry.”

As a mentee, Angela Kumlin meanwhile had heard about the mentorship program from friends who had gone through it, but she also had some specific goals in mind. “The five things I wanted to focus on were business management, especially how to manage risk in your business, managing employees, grass management, succession planning for family, and advocating for our industry,” she says, adding she’d been told that mentors and mentees were always well matched by the program.

“I remember getting off the phone with Adrienne the first time, and giving my husband a rundown of what she and her husband do, and where they’re at, and he said, ‘WOW, they picked people who are right where we want to be in 10 years.’ That gave us a really good boost of confidence that this is possible, and we can go for it.”

Although a decade separates them in age, Adrienne and Angela have a lot in common. Both grew up on grain farms and both have agricultural degrees. Both have worked in agribusiness — Kumlin with BASF although she is currently on maternity leave after recently having her first child.

After university, Adrienne managed a local independent agricultural retailer and then worked in marketing for BrettYoung Seeds before deciding that with a growing farm and young family, she needed to be full time on the farm.

Outside of the actual mentorship, the Cattlemen’s program has lots of other components for the mentees which help them develop skills such as negotiations training, board governance and leadership skills.

Interestingly, not all mentees are primary producers. “One of the mentees in our group was a lawyer who wanted to learn about agricultural policy, and his mentor got him into the negotiations for the country-of-origin labelling discussions in Geneva, Switzerland,” says Kumlin. “The opportunities to see and learn things that you would never get to otherwise are pretty significant, so I would encourage people who aren’t primary producers to apply for the program as well.”

Connecting to real-world agriculture

While his wife Adrienne worked with the CYL program, Aaron Ivey’s mentorship experience was with a different program, which matches cattle producers and other industry leaders with scientific researchers.

The goal of the Beef Researcher Mentorship Program, delivered through the Canadian Beef Research Council, is to provide opportunities for researchers who have come to Canada from other countries to better understand Canadian beef production, and to help them make contacts within the Canadian cattle industry.

Aaron got involved in the program when it piloted in 2014, after serving as chair of the Saskatchewan Forage Council and Saskatchewan Forage Network, which had lobbied the provincial government to fund two forage breeder positions at the University of Saskatchewan.

One of those breeders, Dr. Bill Biligetu hails originally from Inner Mongolia, China, and became Aaron’s mentee. “It was a great opportunity to help bridge the gap between the research community and what’s happening on the farm,” says Aaron. “Hopefully we can help to expedite the process between the research that’s being done and making it applicable to primary production.”

“My primary goal was to better understand the forage beef industry, and to expand my connections with the industry,” says Biligetu. “Aaron is a really knowledgeable person and he invited me two times to his farm, once in 2014 when it was very dry, and again in 2015 when it was wet, and discussed how he dealt with these different challenges, so I learned from a real-world situation.”

Biligetu spent several days at Aaron’s and neighbouring farms, he kept in regular contact with Aaron by phone, and attended some producer zone meetings with him, where Aaron became a facilitator as much as a mentor.

“It was a great opportunity to introduce him to a broader spectrum of industry and help increase engagement,” says Aaron. “At a lot of the meetings he would talk about his research, and there were always questions from the floor, and that was valuable for him because these researchers don’t know what avenues there are to get out and touch base with primary industry, so that was a great aspect of the program.”

Biligetu says the program has also helped to shape his research focus. “This program has made me think more and more about what the end-user — the producer — is really looking for and how they can apply my research,” he says.

Meanwhile, Aaron and Adrienne both feel they got as much value from the programs as the mentees did.

“I’m always thinking about different ways of doing things, and it was good to be able to bounce those ideas off Bill,” says Aaron. “And it also helped me to broaden my network and meet some new people.”

Adrienne adds that mentoring gave them a chance for self-reflection. “Any time you have to explain to someone else what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, and take a second look at the decisions you make and the outcomes, is an excellent thing.”

Seeking out informal mentors

Other mentorships are less formal, as in the case of Blake Hall who operates Tamara Ranch near Red Deer, Alta.

Hall, who has no farm background, caught the farming bug in his late teens, and then laid out a pathway to get his start.

“Over the course of a few years, where I’d been working on farms on the weekends, immersing myself in food culture, reading lots, and going to various courses, seminars, and conferences, I could see myself being drawn towards certain parts of agriculture,” says Hall, who had developed a set of goals for things he needed to learn. He quickly realized the best way to do that was working alongside farmers who could share their wisdom and experience.

“Over a year, I sent an email out to 40 or 50 farms asking if, in exchange for labour, I could go work for them and learn from them for a week to two months. Of that original group that I emailed, I only ended up visiting four farms, but by the end of the trip I had visited two dozen farms,” says Hall. “You’d meet somebody and you’d be really interested in something that they were into, or talking about, or doing, and then they’d refer you to somebody else. It all evolved on its own into a sort of network over the course of the year. And that flexibility meant that I was able to meet people who I otherwise wouldn’t have ever known or sought out.”

Hall spent a year working on farms in New Jersey, Vermont, Ontario, the Prairies and the Peace Country of British Columbia before coming back to Alberta and purchasing his first 30 cows. He sought out mentors who could teach him about low-stress livestock handling, direct marketing, and pasture-based livestock production, all of which he uses in his direct-marketing beef operation today. “There’s no way I could be where I’m at now if I hadn’t taken that time,” says Hall.

For more on Hall, see the upcoming December issue of Country Guide.

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Angela Lovell

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