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The power of mentorship in agriculture

Mentorship is emerging as agriculture’s key strategy for keeping Canada a world-class place to farm. What could be in it for you?

Jordan Dahmer and Tom Teichroeb.

To be at the top of their game in the 2020s, today’s young and mid-career farmers must excel at growing crops and raising livestock. That’s hard enough, given all the new technologies that neither they nor their parents have ever seen.

And that’s just a start. To secure their futures in a world with a continuously shrinking number of producers, farmers must excel, too, at knowing and engaging with their industry.

It’s a taller order than ever, and although it brings incredible new opportunities, it also requires new skills. In fact, a long list of skills. Young farmers must understand marketing, finance, food trends, how to network, how consumers think, and so much more.

Their parents had to know how to put co-operatives together. This generation, in its turn, will have to know how to structure joint ventures and partnerships, and to do deals in entirely new ways.

If only there was a way to give them a leg up.

The good news is that there is. It’s called mentorship.The bad news — let’s call it the difficult news — is that it takes a different way of thinking.

Mentoring is as old as the hills, for a very good reason. Learning from an older, more experienced person — no matter what the topic or skill set — is an efficient way to absorb new skills.

What’s new now, however, is the growing list of mentorship programs on offer across Canada to make farms stronger and more profitable more quickly. And to make farmers better leaders.

Charting a direction

Ted Menzies, former Conservative MP and president/CEO at CropLife Canada recently agreed to become a mentor because he, like many others, strongly believes in the positive outcomes mentoring can collectively offer the agri-food industry.

In past, Menzies has coached a small number of young people through various ag associations on how to speak to politicians. He said yes to participating in the “AdvancingAg Future Leaders Program,” launched in 2017 by the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley, for the same reasons — to help young people in agriculture to be able to speak about their industry and thereby keep it strong.

“There is often a large disconnect between consumers and agriculture, and while we need consumers to better understand agriculture, we need people in agriculture to understand the consumer side as well,” Menzies says.

Ted Menzies and B. Pratyusha Chennupati. photo: Supplied

There are many other reasons why mentoring in the farming sector is critical, and you’ll learn about them through the examples in this story. But as you might have already guessed, one of the most important is making future industry leaders.

Indeed, in the view of Cole Christensen, the most encouraging aspect of the AdvancingAg Future Leaders program “is seeing the outstanding young professionals who have graduated and gone on to make a big impact in Alberta agriculture.” For example, notes Christensen, who administers the program, mentee graduates from the first year of the program now represent farmers at Alberta Canola and the Alberta Wheat Commission.

Each year, the program strives to match 10 to 15 mentees with appropriate mentors. “We are very deliberate about selecting mentors who are enthusiastic about the program and have the time to dedicate to mentorship,” says Christensen.

Menzies was matched with B. Pratyusha Chennupati (who goes by B). She grew up in India, and while completing her chemical engineering degree there, she did a final-year project on reducing the cost of biofertilizer for regional floriculture farmers. That got Chennupati hooked on agriculture for life. She completed a master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal on the nutraceutical value of soybeans, worked on an ag-tech start-up, and now works for crop protection product-maker NuFarm Agriculture in Calgary as a registration specialist.

Chennupati applied to become a mentee for several reasons, all relating to personal, career and ag industry improvement — and much of that centres on improving her level of communication. “I want to become much more familiar with western Canadian agriculture, regulatory affairs and also public affairs,” she says. “I also want to improve my negotiation skills and improve my knowledge… Ted has worked with the World Trade Association among other things and he’s very knowledgeable.”

Chennupati has attended four conferences with Menzies and she says the number of people he’s connected her with is quite high, both in Canada and the U.S. “He’s gone far out of his way to make sure I met a particular person I wanted to meet,” she says. “Whatever I ask him, he remembers and makes sure he addresses it. When I first met him, I was a bit scared as he’s a very high-profile person, but after two minutes into the conversation, he made me very comfortable. I have learned from him to be humble no matter what you achieve. He’s a wonderful mentor. There aren’t enough words to express that.”

Leading the beef industry

Again, ag sector leadership is the aim of the Cattleman’s Young Leader Development Program (CYL), launched in 2010 by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). Through attendance at industry events, meetings with their mentors and the completion of the “Beef Advocacy Canada” program, the CCA says mentees “build upon their knowledge base and become highly capable individuals to represent and lead the beef industry into the future.”

The CYL program also “gives young leaders a chance to team up with industry experts, make connections and provide valuable input to industry and government.”

CCA Youth Leadership co-ordinator Emily Ritchie says the program supports 16 mentorships a year, with mentees chosen from 50 to 60 applicants. “We feel that keeping it very competitive is a plus, and 16 is a manageable number,” Ritchie says.

Tom Teichroeb, who ranches near Langruth, Man., has been a CYL mentor twice. Jordan Dahmer, his current mentee, is directly involved in the beef industry, and he really wants to focus on helping her build a solid networking foundation.

“I want her to have the confidence to reach out to me and others after the mentoring year is over,” Teichroeb says. “It’s important that, as a young producer, she know people from the boards I am on and so on to help her get there quicker and be more profitable quicker. That’s a win. It’s about her being able to see how my operation works at various times of the year, and she and other young people in the industry taking the best of the best practices and applying them, whether that’s from me or a neighbour or someone else. I really hope that’s something that Jordan can take away from the experience.”

Dahmer is a M.Sc. student at the University of Manitoba and is currently involved with her fiancé’s family’s beef cow-calf operation in Carberry, Man. (they also farm grain and potatoes). Since November 2018, when the current crop of CYL mentees were matched with mentors, she and Teichroeb have talked and texted regularly. They’ve also met a few times in person at his ranch about an hour away from her home, and attended both the Manitoba Beef Producers directors’ meeting and AGM.

“What I have found most valuable is Tom’s advice,” says Dahmer. “He’s really easy to talk to and gives me really valuable answers when I ask him any question I can think of. It’s also really valuable to see what he does differently compared to my fiancé’s family. Everyone with cow-calf operations does things differently.”

What has surprised Dahmer most about the mentorship process is how easy it is to talk to her mentor. “I wasn’t expecting to be able to call him up anytime,” she says. “I guess I was expecting more of a formal business relationship.”

Program results in Saskatchewan

If you are looking for more proof that mentorship programs help build future industry leaders, look no further than the Agricultural Producers Association of Sask­atchewan (APAS) “Youth Leadership and Mentorship Program,” launched in 2014.

Of the 27 mentee graduates, four are now APAS board members, and many have taken on farm leadership roles.“We are incredibly proud of all of our mentees, and they have had quite an effect on our organization,” notes Colleen Hennan APAS communications and community relations co-ordinator. “For example, we now have a ‘Young Agricultural Producers’ policy committee, which was created at the request of our mentees a few years ago. They are working on issues that affect young producers and new entrants to farming including tax and succession planning/intergenerational transfers, risk management programs for beginning producers, and access to land and capital.”

In this mentorship program, as in others, mentees learn about organizational and government structures, how policy is made, to run or participate in meetings. Some have also received media training. The mentees also get a chance to practise networking at the APAS AGM, annual policy conference and other meetings.

It’s no surprise that like other mentorship programs, APAS has received more applications than it can handle. “Last year, we decided to just try and accommodate everyone, which is why there were nine mentees instead of five,” says Hennan. “They were an absolutely fantastic group, but we have decided to keep the program to five mentees.”

A more in-depth experience

Although it’s based in Saskatchewan, the brand new Canadian Western Agribition (CWA) “Next Gen Agriculture” mentorship program draws on a mentor base that reaches across Canada in order to accomplish its lofty goals. “You’ll see mentors in our program from all over Canada and right here in Saskatchewan,” says CWA CEO Chris Lane. “We approached the process as if there were no restrictions on geography and asked ourselves ‘If we could choose the best people in the industry to pair with these mentees, who would we ask?’ It says a lot that everyone on that wish list wanted to participate.”

The program is offered by CWA in partnership with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. In addition to linking mentees and mentors, it also funds required travel, training and related costs.

Beyond having mentors that might be geographically far away from mentees, there are a few other things that set this mentorship program apart. It’s 18 months long for one, and it also requires that mentees create their own goals and related plans to achieve them. “The mentors are asked to help create the roadmap and give guidance and direction along the way,” explains Lane. “Mentorship isn’t about a bunch of homework assignments, but it does need clear objectives and a path to achieve them.”

However, this program does share aims with all the other mentorship programs — helping mentees acquire skills that will equip them to lead in their own communities, getting them familiar with board governance, advocacy, industry policy and media literacy. Lane calls these “wider skills that go beyond the farm gate so they can speak up for the industry and lead positive change.”

Current mentor Chad Ross, who ranches 2,000 head with his wife Crystal in Estevan, Sask., has been paired with mentee Lesley Kelly, who cash crops 7,000 acres with her husband in Watrous, about three hours drive away.

Ross sees mentoring as a way to give back to the industry. “It’s pretty early, but I think the mentorship is going to be very broad,” he notes. “I’m on a lot of boards related to cattle production and Lesley wants to learn a lot about board governance, so that will work well.”

“I want to build my knowledge,” says CWA mentee Lesley Kelly. photo: Supplied

For her part, Kelly is hoping that the mentorship will give her a greater understanding of public trust issues. In addition, she wants to find board opportunities that best suit her. “I also want to build my knowledge about operational management and be able to apply what I learn from Chad and others to my farm,” she says. “I am fascinated to learn things like how Chad and Crystal work with employees and even how they schedule things on the farm. ”

Two strangers bonding

Mentor Tom Teichroeb believes that mentor-mentee relationship can very much be a two-way street, with opportunities for mentors to learn from their younger counterparts about things like using social media. He thinks both parties should take full advantage of every single interaction they have. “It should be a humble, open relationship,” he concludes. “It will be what you make it.”

Ted Menzies is similarly passionate. “It’s really invigorating,” he reports. “It will be interesting to see where B ends up.”

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