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Leading in the community

An inside look at how the community wins — and how their farms and farming in general win too — when farmers go to town as community leaders

When Max Kaiser decided to try for municipal council four years ago, he harkened back to a famous and fairly recent moment in farming history.

As he’s a crop and chicken farmer (in the Town of Greater Napanee near Kingston, Ont.), it was fitting — but also a great strategy. When election time rolled around, he won that council seat.

Here’s the strategy. At the all-candidates debate during the campaign, Kaiser quoted the first paragraph of Paul Harvey’s famous speech “So God made a farmer.”

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The speech begins “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker,’ so God made a farmer. God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board,’ so God made a farmer.”

It’s the speech first given by broadcaster Paul Harvey at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention. It later received extremely widespread attention in 2013 when it was used in a Super Bowl commercial for Dodge Ram. Afterwards, Dodge agreed to donate $100,000 for every million views the ad garnered on YouTube, up to $1 million. That target was hit in under five days.

Kaiser quoted the speech because it reflects his belief that being a community leader is “just the sort of thing a farmer would, could and even should do because of the values and ethics we bring with us.”

He also believes that when farmers lead the community, it shines a positive light on farmers in general. “Over the last four years, I’ve often gotten comments like ‘if you can manage that farm, you must be good for the town,’” he says. “But also, I get comments that I bring a different perspective, that I don’t let people forget that agriculture is the largest industry around my area, even with big companies like Goodyear and OPG Lennox.”

Another reason Kaiser ran for local office could seem harder to grasp, but in his mind is actually very clear.

“I decided to do it before I rationalized it,” he says. “What I mean to say is that it’s just in some people to run for office and help out your community, and you feel the need to do it, more than thinking up reasons to support the decision.”

A sign posted on Max Kaiser’s farm.
photo: Supplied

Kaiser was keen to get into municipal politics because in his view it affects daily existence in so many ways. “From roads and services like garbage/recycling to recreational opportunities for my whole family, I’m glad to be part of the vision and policy process and I want to contribute,” he explains.

“Many people ask me about the commitment. They question how I find the time, how I can stand it all, how I put up with the crap (it’s kind of thankless), all the calls from residents and so on, but I never see any of it that way. I don’t feel it to be at all onerous or time-consuming. Sure, there are times when it’s impacting, like during planting or harvesting, but once I make the commitment, I just go with it.”

While Kaiser thinks farmers being community leaders can make a difference in how farming is valued in a given community, he is firm that “sitting there isn’t enough. Every spring and every fall, I bring up the fact that planting or harvest is upon us and remind people that tractors are going to be on the road. I throw those things out there and it raises awareness.”

Kaiser also uses a farm-related saying as the signature line at the bottom of all his emails: “I farmed today; thank you for buying Canadian!”

Benefits of serving

While the community has benefited from Kaiser’s involvement in municipal government, he feels he has too, and so has his farm business.

“Thinking back, every board, committee or organization I’ve been involved with has contributed to my personal growth, training and understanding of many items related to business,” he says. “Finance, human resource management, partnerships and negotiations to name a few obvious ones. For that, I know it’s been worth it for me and my farm… I take those lessons and observations home and incorporate new strategies in our business. So, in that way, municipal government has been energizing and stimulating.”

When asked about specific business-related lessons, strategies or observations he’s taken home to better his farm, Kaiser says that overall, it’s more about a broader perspective.

“A municipality is run somewhat like a business — although it is always guaranteed ‘business’ income from the taxpayers and doesn’t have to worry about making a profit,” Kaiser laughs.

“But it’s still a type of business, and being on council, I’ve had an inside look at how another business is managed. An outside perspective is really valuable. I’ve farmed all my life with my dad, and obviously I have a similar mindset, with him having raised me.

“Specifically, I can tell you that getting to know the type of financial reporting that’s done at municipalities, year to date, budget overage analysis and so on, made me think this can be really useful back on the farm. So I’ve changed the way we do reporting. Also, a municipality does ‘asset management planning’ where you look at timelines of when equipment or vehicles will need major servicing or replacement, so that’s been useful for sure. And there is a lot I’ve learned about different ways to communicate, to deal with conflict.”

(BTW: If you happen to see Kaiser, don’t forget to congratulate him. In fall 2018, he raised his municipal game and won his first term as deputy mayor.)

Community group leadership

While many Canadian farmers are politicians, farmers also contribute to their communities through service groups.

Neil McBeth is what one could only call a community leader superstar. This retired third-generation farmer in Cottam, Ont., is a long-standing member of the Rotary Club of Essex. Among other roles within Rotary, he serves as an “End Polio Now” zone co-ordinator (Rotary’s signature initiative), has been a regional Rotary foundation co-ordinator, and been sergeant-at-arms (as has his wife Cheryl) at two international Rotary gatherings.

He’s also been a Rotary volunteer in Ghana, Nigeria, India and Haiti, assisting with polio immunizations, refurbishing medical clinics, building schools and teaching farmers how to use drip irrigation.

At his church, he’s served three times as board chair, sat on committees and served as secretary to the church trustees for 25 years, and he volunteers in the kitchen cooking for fundraisers. If that weren’t enough, he’s also been a Scout leader and chaired its parent council. Plus, he’s been a 4-H leader, a soccer and baseball coach, and chair of the Essex and District Social Planning Council. Currently, he is the chair of the Community Advisory Committee of the Essex County Nurse Practitioner-led clinic.

“My parents taught my brother and sister and I that it was important to be active agents for change in our community,” says McBeth. “They taught us this by their own involvement through their church, on town council, the school board and through Rotary.”

Similar to Kaiser, McBeth has found that participation as a community leader has had an impact on his farm business in a number of ways, including organizational skills.

“Being part of a service project requires setting up timelines, budgets and work schedules for the participants,” he says. “On the farm, these skills have helped to assist in time management where farm work, community involvement, family and personal time all have to be juggled to get things accomplished in a timely manner, without one taking more priority over the other — especially family.”

While on a Rotary Group Study Exchange to Finland in 1995, McBeth was hosted by a sheep/hog farmer who showed him his record-keeping — what crops he grew on what land, how they produced, what seed was used, spraying and so on. The Finnish farmer also tracked his livestock purchase costs, input costs, yearly income, inventory and carryover.

When he returned to his own farm, McBeth started following suit, which he says helped him make better decisions on crop rotation, seed choice and so on. He was also able to compare annual farm income against these decisions, as well as against weather, markets and other years.

McBeth’s accounting skills on his farm were honed through his experience serving as Rotary club treasurer for nearly 20 years, managing the budget, bingo profits, project income and output and so on, as well as doing the club’s charitable trust record-keeping and donation receipting. McBeth says this helped him make the best decisions on things like when to replace aging equipment and how much to take from the farm business for income or to invest for retirement.

Full-time farmer Brian Hyland is also a long-time member of Essex Rotary (president twice and currently the club’s membership chair). He believes community farm leaders promote a positive image of farmers, build trust between rural and urban folk, and in his case, educate non-farmers. “My club members ask countless questions regarding agricultural practices,” he says. “They want my perspective as I value theirs. I am even an ambassador for Canadian agriculture since our Rotary district is part of suburban Detroit, Michigan.”

Hyland also learned how to negotiate from Rotary’s 4-Way Test (four questions to ask oneself when negotiating). This was particularly useful when he had to deal with his farm insurance firm. “I called the company out for not giving me all my options in the process,” he explains. “I did not think all the truth was forthcoming, nor was it fair, and it definitely did not build good will. I hold myself to these standards and I expected the insurance company to do no less. In the end, all was resolved.”

He has also learned teamwork skills, using them in 2015, for example, when he and his family (wife Rina (Essex Rotarian), children Virginia, William and Matthew, and Brian’s parents Walter and Muriel) hosted Breakfast on the Farm. “We each took responsibilities that day and hosted a very successful event,” Hyland says proudly. Over 2,000 visitors attended.

Help with a hard situation

Gord Patterson and his farm business have experienced many of the benefits already discussed from community leadership, but volunteer experience also prepared him to make some hard decisions.

Patterson is a life member of Kin Canada (the club originated as Kinsmen and Kinettes) and owns a 120-year-old farm in Gladstone, Man. He has held many positions of Kin leadership, including governor of District 2 (northern Manitoba and Ontario, and now Nunavut), he has served on the national board of directors, and in 2018, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Manitoba farmer Gord Patterson receives his life membership, recognizing his decades of contribution to Kin Canada, yet Patterson is also a big believer that his work with the service club has made him a better farmer as well.
photo: Kin Canada

He was introduced to Kin as a teen by a family friend and joined at 18 (the age one could join Kin back then; it’s now 19). He says he joined because he believed he’d feel a sense of community by being a part of the group, and because he also wanted to contribute to his community. Patterson thinks it’s important for farmers to be in a community service organization as it’s part of the cross-section that’s needed for these groups to thrive.

Like all the others, he believes it’s very good for the image of farmers to have them as community leaders. “It shows the interest farmers have in their communities, and it also attracts other farmers and people who aren’t farmers to volunteer,” he observes. “But just because someone doesn’t volunteer or become a community leader doesn’t mean he or she isn’t doing many good things for their communities in the background. We have to remember that.”

Also similarly to the other farmers we talked to, Patterson has found that holding different offices within Kin at the local, provincial and national levels educated him on bookkeeping, problem solving and strategic planning. “It made me look at different cropping options on different parts of the farm,” he says. “I also learned to plan things out, with big steps and then how to reach each step at a time.”

The networking related to Kin has also been beneficial for Patterson’s farm over the years. “If people were looking for beef, they would buy from me and I would buy cattle from others,” he notes. “And you learn to work with people. In Kin, you work with all types of people. When you’re out on the tractor, you’re by yourself and you don’t develop skills to deal with the people who are important to keeping your farm going. With Kin, you’re a team and you have to deal with whatever comes up, right away, together.”

He also learned in Kin that sometimes it’s best to pull the pin.

“There were certain projects in Kin that it became clear weren’t going to work out for the organization,” he says. “I had to go through that process with cattle on my farm. I always farmed with my uncle, who is now elderly. In 2003, BSE hit, and then another disease hit our herd in 2005, and then the market crashed in 2008. At that point, we decided to shrink the herd and I got a job off farm. I had never even considered a job off farm. Then four years ago, we decided to sell all our cattle.”

Patterson says being in Kin made him look at all the options at the time, at the skills he had and that his uncle had, and what the future might look like. “And that’s what you do in Kin on a project,” he explains. “Everyone has different strengths. And things are always changing.”

However, Patterson also used his experience in Kin to make a little “lemonade” from the BSE crisis, benefiting the whole farming community.

When the epidemic exploded, because of his Kin experience, Patterson felt quite comfortable speaking to groups as large as 800 people about what he felt needed to be done about the situation. “When a crisis hits, you need farmers that are comfortable speaking up,” he says. “Being a community leader prepares you for that.”

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