Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program grads share experiences at PCFA meeting

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By Dan Rankin
Though farmers in Ontario and those in the South American countries of Chile and Argentina may share a profession, different political, economic and social realities ensure that there are many ways the agriculture business in these countries differ. This was one of the messages from the guest speakers to the Perth County Federation of Agriculture’s annual meeting in Mitchell on Dec. 4. Presenting were two young women from the area who earlier this year completed the Rural Ontario Institute’s Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP).
Sara Wood, a cash crop farmer from north of Mitchell, and Linda Slits, an Ag Financial Planner from Exeter, were guest speakers for the event at the Mitchell Golf and Country Club. The pair graduated from the AALP in March, after a series of seminars and tours that saw them travel from Leamington to Ottawa, and from Washington, D.C. to Santiago, Chile.
The AALP is a 19-month executive leadership development program for men and women interested in shaping the future of Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food industries and rural communities, Wood said. The application process is extensive, and strives for diversity in its classes, “because it will bring out collective backgrounds of experiences and perspectives throughout the 19-month period when we’re together,” she said. The program is structured so it can be done alongside a full-time job, and throughout its history there have been 413 graduates. Their classmates ranged from producers to workers in the provincial ministry of agriculture. “It brought a big diversity to our class, because all of us came from a different background and had different businesses and ideas, so we got to bring a lot of that forward,” said Slits. “Fifty percent of the learning comes from the workshops, the speaker and the tours we went on. The other 50 percent comes from our classmates and the different perspectives they bring to each session, the discussions and conversations we had amongst one another.”
Wherever they went, they had the chance to talk to government representatives, farmers and businesspeople with different perspectives on the agricultural chain. “We saw how all of these issues relate to agriculture, and back to agriculture,” Slits said. “It’s not everyday I talk to a grain trader, an H.R. manager or an agronomist. But, because of this program, I’ve built strong connections for a lifetime and people I can always call on for this kind of expertise.”
In July 2014, the class did a one week tour in the United States, with stops in Detroit, where they heard about the challenges of addressing abandoned homes and urban blight from the city’s deputy mayor, and the Indiana State Fair, where they learned about their agri-education program. At the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. they learned about our nation’s bilateral relationship with its southern neighbour, and then spoke to ag industry lobbyists.
Also part of the AALP is a two-week international study tour. Though Wood and Slits’ group had originally been scheduled to visit Ghana this past February and March, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa prompted them to cancel that trip and instead head to Chile and Argentina in South America.
Though the countries border each other on the southern tip of South America, the guest speakers told the PCFA how they learned about Chile and Argentina’s very different cultures and environments, which in turn reflected their agriculture industries.
Not long after arriving at the Canadian Embassy in Santiago, Chile, Wood said the group experienced a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. That’s not uncommon in Chile, which is home to diverse landscapes from plains and deserts to mountains and glaciers, Slits said.
“Chile focuses their efforts on being very open to trade with other countries,” Wood said. “They have the most trade agreements with different countries throughout the world and Canada’s first trade agreement in South America was with Chile.”
Shoppers will find Chilean produce such as grapes, cherries and blueberries throughout the winter in Canadian grocery stores. Chile is also a major exporter of wine, which the AALP class got to make during to a visit to a winery. Stops in Chile included the Pioneer Seed plant, which is the largest seed plant on the continent, and a wholesale produce market in Santiago where farmers bring their produce on trucks, bikes and carts to sell for cash. Elsewhere, they toured an export inspection station, run in concert with the United States Department of Agriculture. “There are over 100 pests that can’t enter the US,” Wood said. “If found, the goods can’t be exported and must be sold locally.
Climate change if affecting the access farmers have to fresh water, Slits said, as, over the past few years, Chile has lost 30 percent of its rain and rivers are down 40 percent. They mainly depend on glacial rivers that come down from the Andes. When it rained for about a half hour (for the first time in over a month) during their visit, the AALP group learned that rain was actually somewhat of a hazard for produce farmers, as it meant they would have to spend time and money spraying their grapes to prevent fungus from growing inside the dampened fruit. In Argentina on the other hand, farmers enjoy about 1,900 mm of rain per year, “and it helps them with two growing seasons of wheat, followed by, say, a late soy bean crop,” Slits said. “These countries are right besides each other, so it’s very different.”
They also described how, though Chile’s banking system is still developing, they have a stable government and currency that Chileans support. Whereas, in Argentina, “farmers had a very negative attitude towards the government,” Wood said. Farmers feel “stung” by such policies as a 35 percent tax on soybean export revenue to fund energy and transportation programs, she said.
Farmers say “without the taxes it would be a lot more affordable for them to grow more crops and export them out of the country,” said Slits. While the government believes “soy beans are so profitable that growers can afford to pay the high export tax,” Wood said. “Without it, they would plant less corn and wheat needed for domestic consumption.”
The AALP class toured a huge industrial grain terminal on the coast of Rosario, Argentina, capable of unloading 1,300 trucks, 500 rail carts and several barges each day. They also visited a large private school that specializes in giving its students first hand agricultural experience. On its grounds are dairy and chicken barns and areas growing different cash crops and vegetables for practical class work. “We didn’t see the slaughterhouse, but they have one on site,” Wood said. “Eventually, students learn to milk cows, butcher animals and operate farm machinery. They also study soil science – different things than we would learn in our childhood education.”
Finally, Slits described how the class toured the Buenos Aires slums, and met with famed community worker Margarita Barrientos, who has been helping the poor in Buenos Aires for over 15 years. “We were amazed when she told us she feeds 2,000 people out of her shop seven days a week with the help of 30 volunteers,” she said, adding that Barrientos has also set up a medical centre, pharmacy, nursery school and dental clinic. “You can say she has made a true difference in her community.”
Reflecting on the program, Slits said she now goes to work “with a whole different attitude.”
“One of the people that inspired me most was a man at a greenhouse in Leamington,” she said. “They’re going to start using the emissions from the ethanol plant to heat the greenhouse, and his quote was, ‘there’s never enough time in the day to seek out all the opportunities.’ What he was saying was there are so many things we can learn and improve on, and change in our lives to become a better person.”
According to Wood, the farmers she met in Chile and Argentina were surprisingly open and willing to talk about their challenges, and some of their past successes. “They’re a lot more open in Chile to discuss what was and wasn’t working than sometimes we are here,” she said. “They’re more apt to celebrate what they’ve succeeded at, when we’re very proud, but tend to keep that quiet and to ourselves. It’s okay to celebrate and be proud of what we’ve done and the accomplishments we’ve achieved.”
Wood and Slit definitely left the impression that they were proud of what they had achieved. As another class enters the fourth month of their AALP journey, tickets are now on sale for a gala in support of the program that will be held in Guelph at the Delta Hotel on Feb. 20, 2016. The event, which includes both a live and silent auction, takes place every other year, “to raise money for the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, specifically the international study tour,” Slits said.
For more information, visit AgLeaders.ca or follow @AALPDream on Twitter.