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Young farmers are on board and looking ahead

Innovative training programs are raising the leadership capabilities of Canada’s youngest farmers

Imagine that tomorrow, you wake up and every commodity group and farm association you can think of needs to have an election. All their boards need entirely new directors, and there’s been a scramble to nominate the right people to fill those spots.

How many of the candidates would be in their early 30s? Or in their 20s?

And how many of those young directors would you vote for? Or would you dismiss them all as “untested,” and refuse to vote for anyone without grey hair?

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What makes the question so interesting is that it’s the same issue many farmers are wrestling with at home.

Can we trust the young generation to make more of the decisions around here? Can we trust them to be leaders?

It turns out, however, that some farm organizations are refusing to look at it as a simple yes-or-no question. They’re asking: What can we do to grow the capability of young directors?

And there may be lessons for all of us in how they’re trying to do it.

Boards once dominated by the old boys club are seeking new, young candidates on purpose, with perhaps no better example of how they’re doing it than the Future Leaders Development program that emerged in Ontario three years ago as a collaboration supported by Holstein Canada, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, CanWest DHI, and EastGen. Last year the program expanded to Western Canada too.

Participants get three intensive days of instruction on the roles and responsibilities of being a board director. And already, participants have gone on to fill three positions on the DHI board, as well as another three positions at EastGen.

The results are better than anyone had originally hoped, says Neil Petreny, general manager for CanWest DHI.

“Personally, I’m surprised with how quickly we’ve gotten payback,” he admits. “I think that’s just fantastic they’re willing to contribute. That’s telling me that at least the people that were selected up front really did have the interest.”

You have to wonder, if these individuals were the sort who should have been pursuing board positions all along, why was there a need for a recruitment and training program? Petreny answers by tellimg me many young people seem to have misconceptions about what it means to sit on a board.

“For young people, without the experience or exposure, it sounds fancy, it’s threatening, ‘I don’t know as much as others or what is policy about’ … but those are things that you don’t learn in school, you only learn through experience,” he says.

Young farmers are signalling their interest, and Petreny reports that he is detecting a drop in average delegate age when he attends Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario meetings.

It’s fortunate timing. “We’ve got fewer and fewer people all the time,” Petreny says.

Too often directors are selected because they’ve got spare time on their hands, and Petreny says he’s also seen people end up on boards just because they bred a good cow once, or their grandfather made a name for the family, not because that individual was the best person for the job.

“If you want future leaders that have skills and ability,” he insists, “you don’t want to just teach people who have time now.”

At CanWest DHI, they’ve recently gone so far as to develop a director succession policy to define what getting the best person for the job really looks like. It specifies how vacancies will be advertised, how applications will be solicited, and what the requirements will be for candidate screening. It will include a skills matrix of the existing board so they can express a preference for candidates who strengthen collective weaknesses.

Endorsed candidates will still be required to run in a general election, but it’s their best strategy for getting the best individuals on board, not just people who have a surplus of free time.

“You don’t want a whole board of 70-year-olds, and you don’t want a whole board of 20-year-olds either,” he says. “It takes a blend of both experience, and to some degree, inexperience. You want a variety of skillsets and personalities, because that interpersonal dynamic is so important in what makes an organization successful, not just the knowledge and experience.”

Getting that right blend to include young directors isn’t so easily done in every organization, according to Jason Reid. He’s been looking for company on the younger side of the table at Beef Farmers of Ontario, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and the Young Cattlemen’s Council. And regularly, he gets the “don’t have time” response.

It isn’t that Reid doesn’t understand how many demands a young farmer is likely to have on their time. He and his wife, Trudy, have roughly 300 acres in Thunder Bay, Ont., where they raise roughly 40 cow-calf pairs, 50 to 70 backgrounding cattle and 300 ewes along with two young daughters. He also works as a relief milker, transports livestock, and helps out at the local abattoir.

But he can’t really fathom how so many young farmers bow out of positions he’s flying nearly everywhere to fill, because he believes he owes that to the industry.

“When we were starting out in 2003, we couldn’t afford anything; we worked 200 acres, I had a 30-horse tractor, and when the hay needed cutting, somebody cut it, when the hay needed baling, they dropped a baler off. We have a rake that somebody just left here. At the end of the year, there was no custom-work bill,” he recalls. “I can never, ever, afford to pay back my community for what they have done to get us started. So we made a decision that, we can’t pay them back, but we can help build the community better… and when the next young person comes along, we are morally obligated to help them.”

Granted, folks aren’t waiving bills for young farmers who are just getting started all over the place. But Reid’s point is everyone has been given something. It may have been just a small scholarship, or even a retail discount that you get as a perk for some farm association membership you have. “And if you really think of what the industry has given to you, aren’t we all kind of obligated a little to put a bit back into it?”

For those who don’t want to do the job because they feel no moral obligation, then consider doing it for an important lesson in business, he says.

If you’re so busy working that you truly don’t have time for anything else, or if no one else is willing to work for as little money as you are to get the job done, then consider it a warning sign for your business, Reid urges.

“Farmers and farm families should not be subsidizing the food that we eat by their spouses’ off-farm income,” Reid says. “We need to get our heads wrapped around the idea that you need to be able to pay somebody to do the work that you’re doing while you’re gone.”

Reid believes in the theory that any truly successful farm business should be capable of running for a year without any one key individual physically being there to do the work required. He doesn’t personally know any farmers who would even want to go on a year-long vacation like that, and he acknowledges that his farm certainly isn’t there, but he believes it’s a goal worth aspiring to.

“You shouldn’t be tied to the farm to the point where you are the only one who can do it,” Reid says. “Sitting on a board and going to Guelph for two or four or eight days a month, whatever it might be, shouldn’t be an issue.”

Clearly, Reid doesn’t buy the argument that maybe folks who truly are that strapped for time are best left off the board. He’s really enthusiastic about the results of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) Mentorship Program that was launched by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in July 2010. The young people coming to the Young Cattlemen’s Council are individuals to really keep an eye on, he assures me, and he predicts that the way our industry currently tackles issues would be very different if these folks were running our lobby organizations.

“I think we would be 100 times more successful if we came to politicians with 20- to 30-year-old directors, than with 60- to 70-year-old directors,” Reid says.

If it were up to him, every farm organization in the country would have a sunset clause. But Rob Scott, the current chair of the Ontario Sheep Marketing Association (OSMA) and someone admired by Jason Reid for having proven himself to be good at what he does, isn’t sure he’d go that far.

Of course, no one wants to discourage the next generation from getting involved, Scott explains, but he agrees with Petreny that there is a lot about the job which can only be learned through experience. Scott says it would have been extremely difficult for him at a younger age to have operated his farm successfully, helped by his wife Joanne and son Matt, and still managed to do what he felt was necessary for the OSMA this past year.

Their family farm near Brantford, Ont., is a 300-ewe flock which expanded to include a large feedlot operation not long ago. Meanwhile, since Scott became chair in 2015, the OSMA has withdrawn from the Canadian Sheep Federation and then collaborated with the Alberta Lamb Producers and the Federation des producteurs d’agneaux et moutons du Quebec to form the National Sheep Network.

“Obviously, you want to see younger people getting involved, but if I look back on my life there is a reason why there are older people at the political advocacy level,” he says. “I’m away 100 to 120 days a year because that’s what it takes. The biggest factor in my case is that I have my son working on the farm with me, so that I can get away to do this stuff.”

Which is an important distinction Scott insists is worth repeating, both within the industry but also outside of the industry. As Reid pointed out, politicians need to see a future in farming. So when you’re applauding the merits of a new risk management program, you could be the one to say it’s made you more confident in pursuing your future farm career or you can explain how it has allowed you to bring your son on to the family farm full-time now.

“I often tell people, I’m not a chairman, I’m a farmer,” Scott says. “But more importantly, I’m not just a producer; I’m the father of a producer. That’s my biggest drive.”

There was nothing wrong with being young, pigheaded, working two jobs, and waking up every morning excited about this farm you were building, he chuckles, but that’s also when marketing boards and governments were just things that were getting in your way. “As you get older, you realize, the world is run by people who show up,” Scott says. “I remember one time being so excited about an issue, I was so worked up that when I got the opportunity to stand up in front of a crowd, I froze. I kicked myself for weeks, and that carried on until someone taught me how to breathe.”

Young people who want to lead have to prove they can be effective. With all of the young politicians currently in office, Scott believes young farmers have opportunities to build a role in bridging with governments. Good social skills will carry them a long way, he says.

“I went right from high school, to working in a blue-collar, off-farm job where I ran a crew, to all of a sudden sitting at a board table, and I tell you, that was hard,” he admits.

Scott has often wondered if public speaking and financial reporting would have come easier to him if he’d gone to university. “I learned to compensate because, although I didn’t have the academic skills behind me, I did have the social skills from the trade field to delegate.”

If experience has taught him anything, he says, it’s that learning to extend yourself beyond your comfort zone will produce the most rewarding changes in your life.

About the author

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Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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