By Delaney Seiferling, Delaney Seiferling Consulting
Statistics show that a large number of Saskatchewan producers are at or nearing retirement age, which means that it will be up to the younger generation to fill in the gap.
And this is not only specific to on-farm operations, but also for agriculture leadership and policy development in the province.
This is an area where the learning curve is steep, said Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) vice president Norm Hall.
“Farm leadership doesn’t just happen,” he said. “It takes years of training and experience for younger producers to become knowledgeable and confident enough to move forward. This takes an awful lot of work.”
This is why APAS created its Youth Leadership and Mentorship Program two years ago, with funding from the federal and provincial governments under Growing Forward 2. Hall credits the government with recognizing the need for such a program.
“No groups were taking this sort of project on and the province saw this and so put this program forward and we jumped on it,” he said.
Currently the program takes on five young producers a year, targeting those with an interest in agricultural policy, and aims to provide them with the necessary training and experience to hone their skills to eventually take over from the older generation. Participants are matched with seasoned mentors from their district and over the course of six to eight months, they attend APAS committee, district and board meetings, professional development opportunities, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s (CFA) annual meeting in Ottawa.
Jeremy Welter, a producer from west central Saskatchewan and the current APAS rep with the RM of Mariposa, is one of the nine mentees that have now completed the program. He said it has given him an entirely new perspective on farming in Saskatchewan.
“It’s so important to remove yourself from your bubble of comfort and surroundings and see what else is out there,” he said. “I was most surprised at the differences in agriculture in Saskatchewan – there’s such a huge variety of things going on across the country in agriculture.”
A major highlight of the program for Welter was the networking opportunities that came out of the CFA annual meeting, which brings together 24 agriculture organizations from across Canada to discuss and debate farm policy issues, and allows attendees to meet with farm leaders, bureaucrats, Ministers and MPs and attend Parliament Hill functions.
For Welter, this part of the program was the most valuable – exposure to a whole new group of people with diverse perspectives about agriculture in Canada.
“I had the chance to meet and converse and visit with people such as politicians, bureaucrats, and our counterparts in other provinces,” he said. “This definitely gave me more of a chance to forge some of those relationships that benefit you further down the line.”
“It’s great to be able to surround yourself with people that have different thoughts and opinions than you do, and to have the ability to voice my opinions and learn about other people’s opinions. It forces me to question why I have the beliefs I have and think the way I do. Sometimes you change your mind and sometimes it reinforces that you’re right about something.”
Devin Harlick, who owns a farming operation with his brother but works full-time as an agrologist in Kyle, is another graduate of the program. He initially got involved in the program because of his interest in the political side of the industry and for him one of the biggest benefits was the professional development opportunities that came from interacting with his mentor.
“Actually seeing first hand from mentors how to conduct business as a professional, at the meetings and at the CFA conference, was one of the biggest benefits,” he said.
Harlick also said the program was an eye-opener for him in terms of learning the politics of the industry.
“It was a mindboggling thing when I got to Ottawa,” Harlick said. “It was nothing that I expected and totally different than what I imagined.”
For Hall, this type of feedback is common but the way he measures success is in the number of producers that come out ready to take on leadership positions within the industry. So far, four of the past participants have taken on leadership positions within APAS and several of the current participants are looking to stay on board as well.
“We are seeing it as a great success,” Hall said.