As you finish up your busy growing season, the last thing on your mind might be an industry board meeting. But as harvest comes to an end, farmers around Alberta are taking up the reins of boards across industries.
Why sit on a board? For growers like Kevin Auch, it’s a matter of recognizing the potential in his sector and then working to see just how much progress can be made.
“We are one of the newer boards in the province and we have gone from nothing to a powerhouse organization trusted with a fairly large budget to help out our farmers,” says Auch, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission. “Our role is really twofold – the first is to advocate for wheat growers, but the biggest role we have is investing in research to help solve some of the problems Alberta wheat growers face.”
The Alberta Wheat Commission was created around the same time the Canadian Wheat Board single desk was dismantled, as growers in the province voiced a desire to see some of the work of the board continue. Auch joined to become an active participant in the discussion of his industry, and is serving as chair for the remainder of his second three-year term.
“The more effort you put into a board, the more you are able to accomplish and the more the industry advances,” he says. “I know a lot more about the industry than I did even a few years ago. Without industry boards, issues wouldn’t be dealt with in terms of market development and research at the grower level. We are also a credible voice to the customer, reassuring them that we are selling high quality, healthy product.”
Auch farms 5,000 acres south of Vulcan. He is a strong advocate for strict crop rotations, as he says crop diversity is one of the biggest ways to manage disease and to keep agriculture sustainable.
“I want to make sure wheat is profitable for the grower and desirable for the consumer,” he says. “As a member of the board, I can drive some of the research into solving disease issues to make sure wheat remains a staple crop in Canada.”
Building a Board
Currently at the end of his term as chairman of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC), Greg Sears initially joined his board in 2012 as a way to stay involved in the industry and to share his expertise as both a farmer and an engineer. He says board involvement is an important way to help the agriculture community through service.
“It is very gratifying to be able to advance the industry of farming,” he says. “As numbers go, we are a small population and industry boards help give us a louder voice. On a personal level, board participation is an excellent way to network with other farmers to learn more about what practices work for them.”
The ACPC is made up of 12 regions and each region has a director. Usually it’s another member who encourages a colleague to participate, but Sears says he’d like to see even more farmers put their name forward for nomination. On his board, potential members need the signature of 10 eligible producers to become an official nominee. If there is more than one nominee in each region, elections are held within the region.
“The biggest concern other farmers communicate to us before signing on is the time commitment, but you can choose your level of involvement to a certain extent,” he says. “We have four board meetings a year, and there are also several industry and government events that some of our board will attend each year. We try to spread the work load around but the time commitment can range from 12 to 30 days per year – depending on the member’s interests.”
Sears farms 2,400 acres north of Grande Prairie and appreciates that board participation allows him to share his experiences and advocate for issues important to his region’s farmers. He says the ACPC board has directors who farm 1,000 acres, and those who farm 60,000 acres. He prefers to see both experienced and younger producers on a board in order to have a mix of voices, and to share different perspectives.
Building an Industry Network
As the son of a seed grower, Ward Oatway grew up watching his father attend board meetings. In his youth, his summer family holiday was attending the national meetings. It was at one of those national meetings later in his career where Oatway was approached by the Alberta Seed Growers to join the board – and knowing what they had accomplished in the past helped entice him to put himself forward as a nominee.
“It was initially a bit of nostalgia that led me to the board, but today I see just how many people are involved to make sure that our industry is being heard,” he says. “For me, working with seed growers across the country, not just around the province, gives me the kind of insight into what different growers face, and also into how solutions in one part of the country can help in Alberta.”
This is Oatway’s first year as the president of the Alberta Seed Growers and he says that while there has been a steep learning curve, having a supportive past president has helped him in his role.
“Our past president has helped me to prioritize and provided guidance on the direction he took the board while allowing me to find my way. It’s a very democratic process, so it’s important to make sure you are representing growers in the way they have asked.”
He says boards can also step in when the roles of different provincial and federal departments change suddenly. He points to when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency eliminated their crop inspectors. Several agricultural boards, including the Alberta Seed Growers, stepped up to make sure the new inspection process was in place so that the shift to third party inspectors went seamlessly.
“What was a big change that could have caused panic instead transitioned easily in part because of the involvement of various boards,” says Oatway. “It seems like policy continues to change quickly, in terms of breeding and technology and global markets. We make sure our growers’ interests are being heard in those policy discussions.
Oatway grows 1,300 acres of pedigreed pea, barley and wheat seed along with commercial canola on his farm near Clive. He says he wants to see more people volunteer to become members of boards.
“I think if people ask to become members they have a really good mindset coming into the process,” he says. “Ours is a very young board but we need a mix of experiences as people have more or less time, based on where they are in their lives. Board experience is worth the time it takes to become fully invested in your industry, and to help make a difference going forward.”