A Voice for Everyone

- Oatway family

(L-R) Ezri, Lori, Brie and Ward Oatway stand on their farm near Clive, Alta. Photo: Ward Oatway

Ward Oatway has always focused on helping all seed growers, no matter the size of their operation.

For Ward Oatway, being a seed grower is much more than just growing the seed. The Clive, Alta. producer has been farming full-time for the last 15 years and for most of that time he’s been involved with the Alberta Seed Growers (ASG) and now SeCan, in a leadership role.

“I wanted to really get involved with how things, as an organization and as a community, would grow,” explains Oatway in a phone interview. “I wanted to be part of the direction of that and know what was coming. And be able to guide it along in a way that would be beneficial to the majority of seed growers.”

The past president of ASG has helped the Alberta seed industry through a decade of changes from ushering in the Variety Use Agreement (VUA) to lobbying for the removal of fusarium from Alberta’s Pest Act.

“He’s really well rounded,” Trent Whiting, SeCan’s Alberta and British Columbia marketing rep, says in a phone interview. “He can look at it from the small, medium and large (point of view) and he doesn’t lose focus on anyone. He doesn’t pigeonhole himself one way.”

Oatway’s desire to help every farm, no matter it’s size, is what he’s focused on as he starts in his new leadership role on the SeCan board. His interest in leadership was fostered from a young age watching his father on their family farm.

Farming in the Blood

Oatway’s father, Grant, was working as a surveyor for an oil company when he moved the family back to the farm in the 1970s. He then started looking into ways to expand the operation, and in the early 1980s he became a pedigreed seed grower and Oatway’s Seed Farm was born.

Over the years Grant was involved with the Alberta seed industry as it evolved and grew. In the 1980s he served on the SeCan board, which cultivated Oatway’s future interest in it.

Oatway worked on the farm growing up, attending college after high school. He then got a job working for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF), where he worked for 13 years, while farming part-time. He then decided it was too much doing both jobs, so he quit AAF and started farming full-time. His father then began to ease into retirement.

The farm is located on 1,200 acres, with usually more than half devoted to seed production every year. They grow wheat, barley and peas for seed, and then canola as a commercial crop. Oatway enjoys getting access to the latest new crop varieties as a seed grower.

“You can recommend (new varieties) to your neighbours. Or if they don’t quite work the way you thought, then you can always switch it up and go a different direction. But it’s being on the cutting edge of genetics when they’re coming out and being released,” he explains.

Oatway’s wife, Lori who works at AAF, also helps out on the farm. His youngest daughter, Brie, who is high school works on the farm during the summer, and his older daughter, Ezri, who attends the University of Alberta, has been helping this year as well as her classes have moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than a Seed Grower

In 2010, Oatway decided to join the ASG board. He had attended meetings over the years and was interested in becoming more involved with the industry. Things had been going well on the farm and he had some time to spare.

Over the next decade he plunged himself into the group as it went through a number of changes. From 2017-18 he served as president of the organization and is now finishing out his final year as past president.

There’s been the Seed Synergy vote and the VUA, “talks on that were starting and they’ve been contentious issues, especially here in Alberta.  We were trying to get the information out, the misinformation was hard to disseminate,” Oatway explains.

He also worked closely with the Alberta government on the fusarium file as the agriculture community lobbied to get fusarium removed from the province’s Pest Act. Oatway was part of the agriculture industry’s Fusarium Action Group with Whiting.

“We saw things very similar. It was a good collaboration on things. We could discuss things with each other openly and honestly, which I think is really good. Nobody ever got bent out of shape or anything like that,” Whiting says.

Beyond the Farm

As Oatway’s time as past president of ASG neared to a close, he began looking at what else he could do to help the seed industry.

A board position at SeCan had opened up and Oatway was interested. He asked around and quickly discovered he would be a good fit for it, so he put his name up and was elected to the board.

“I kind of like to see that SeCan sticks to the way it was originally, or the way it was set up, supporting the independent seedsman, not necessarily a big company but everybody right down to well, like even for me,” Oatway explains. “I want to be able to see that it’s going to work for someone my size and not just multiple employee type, large operations.”

Back on the farm, Oatway expects to keep on working for the next 10 to 15 years. His wife will probably work at AAF for around the same amount of time and then the two plan to retire together.

Both of his daughters are looking at careers away from the farm, which means Oatway’s Seed Farm may be on its final chapter. But Oatway isn’t worried about his neighbours when it comes to their seed needs.

“There’s another young seed grower in the area, started up in the last three, four years. So, I know people are going to be able to access what they need without a big gap in service or anything like that,” Oatway explains.