Robynne Anderson got the call to tell her she had been nominated to the 2017 Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame (CAHF) as she was about to board a plane to Rome for meetings at the United Nations.
Anderson’s induction into CAHF is a culmination of a lifetime’s work serving agriculture, which began on the family grain farm founded by her grandfather. Although she helped out with the chores like any other farm kid, her goal was to become a history professor.
While attending Carlton University to take a history degree, she worked as a Page in the House of Commons as part of a government scholarship program.
“I was working for the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, who became Minister of Agriculture when the then serving Minister of Agriculture was sadly diagnosed with cancer and had to leave his post quite quickly,” says Anderson. “The team in the office was trying to decide how to divide up the additional work and they said you’re from the farm, you should go over to agriculture.”
Anderson wasn’t sure this was the best plan, because she hadn’t taken much interest in many aspects of the family farm. She was surprised, however, when she went over to the Department of Agriculture, just how little people, in general, seemed to know about farming.
“I learned very quickly that the things I considered to be the most basic understanding of agriculture were not necessarily common knowledge,” says Anderson. “One day they were looking at pictures from a meeting in Saskatchewan and I knew it was a Massey Ferguson combine in a barley field. I felt like everybody would know that but I realized that, in fact, everybody didn’t know that. It was a lightning bolt moment for me and that’s how I embarked on my career trying to combine an understanding and a passion for agriculture with an ability for people who need to communicate about it, and work on policy environments, to be able to bridge that divide between what they understand in a farm context and how that actually meets the rest of the world.”
Helping secure land tenure for women farmers
One of the highlights of Anderson’s political career was as a member of the United Nations Committee on Food Security, where she helped to negotiate and develop the Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Tenure, a proactive document that emphasizes the importance of secure land tenure for women in agriculture globally.
“A group of us worked to raise these questions about land tenure more profoundly,” she adds. “Over the course of several years, a document was negotiated called the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure. I sat through those and we raised the bar on the discussion about how securing land tenure underpins the success of women, as well as access to finance and the ability to access markets.”
“People often don’t appreciate that globally women represent about 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s farmers and in many parts of the world women do not have access to land ownership,” says Anderson. “The question of land tenure underpins success in agriculture. If you don’t have the security of your land, you don’t get access to credit then you don’t have the same ability or incentive to steward your land. You don’t have the options for a multi-generational transfer, and the security of the infrastructure one needs to farm comes into question.”
Back to Manitoba
After spending some time working as a legislative assistant in Ottawa, where she also worked on the new Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, Anderson felt it was time to go back to Winnipeg, Manitoba and pursue her other passion, as a communicator. She started Issues Ink, a consulting and publishing business which published a number of business-to-business magazines for different sectors of the agricultural industry.
“I realized that there was a communications gap that was bigger than simply policy issues, it also reflected how people were sharing information inside the agriculture sector,” she says. “I had the opportunity to build a number of publications; ultimately I think we had nine different titles that focused on agricultural communications inside sectors. I combined the work of my father on the farm with the work of my mother who was the head of university relations at the University of Winnipeg. We often used to laugh that I was a marriage of Bob’s work and Joan’s work.”
More women leaders in agriculture
The fact that all three of the 2017 CAHF inductees are women, is a reflection that cultural attitudes to women in agriculture are changing, says Anderson. “I’d like to think the induction ceremony is a sign that our time has come,” she says. “Only five women are in the CAHF right now out of 210. That is a reflection of reality. It’s also a reflection of culture and perhaps that culture really has begun to change with three women being inducted. I hope this is a foreshadowing of many more women to come because there have been more women leaders than five, so we need to do a better job of nominating our women leaders and celebrating them. I think it will begin to become more evident about the long-term impact women have had in agriculture.”
When Anderson began her agricultural industry career in her 20s, she was often the only woman in a room of 200 men at meetings. Today that’s rarely the case, which she sees as an indication that attitudes have changed a lot towards women in leadership and decision-making roles.
“We have an increasing number of women who are in senior leadership roles inside agribusiness and also inside the association environments that support the underpinnings of agriculture,” she says. “Globally, we have probably about 50 per cent women leading international associations.”
Anderson believes there are many factors influencing this shift, with more and more female university graduates and women engaging in all aspects of society.
“I don’t think agriculture is completely isolated in this. It’s part of a much larger trend,” she says. “I think the role of women on the farm has been a unique element to this. In every farm family I knew growing up, women had important roles but there was always the assumption that it would be the husband who went to the meeting or was the formal “representative” of the farm. The thing that’s really shifted is, we just don’t accept that as a given. In many ways, lots of women for generations have been underpinning the agriculture sector and engaged. We are now beginning to talk about it, celebrate it, and acknowledge it. The more we do that, the more presumptions there will be that daughters will inherit farms, and rent land and that women will be presidents of grain companies. Where once the son was the one who would inherit the farm, now I think farm families look at all the kids to decide which one is most suited to take over the farm.”
Women are much more active off the farm too – serving on farm groups and the boards of industry associations, which leads many more women into roles as influencers in the industry.
“You graduate to leadership after participation so a generation of leaders before me got in there and were active and then my generation has come along and we’re not only active but we invest right from the start so it’s easier to graduate into leadership roles,” says Anderson. “Increasingly, when you see women in leadership roles in organizations, there’s a growing respect for the skills women bring to leadership and they bring some special qualities to it.”
Leadership roles often involve multi-tasking, something women are very good at, which is a result, says Anderson of women often taking a wider view of things.
“I think women are good at multi-tasking not only from the sense of doing multiple things at once, but seeing the arc of all things,” she says. “Women have traditionally been in roles where for the past two or three generations they have been working and managing households. I think that’s something farmers in general are good at. You understand that you’ve got to grease the machines, do the maintenance in the winter, seed in the spring, manage the spraying and the good stewardship of that, and when you are ready to harvest, if you haven’t got the combine fully operational when the crop is ripe, it’s going to break down. That whole arc in that participation, agriculture is uncommonly good at. We sometimes feel marginalized in agriculture but we punch above our weight globally, especially in Canada, where we’re less than two per cent of the population. We’re good at pulling together and expressing our interests, our passion for rural communities, and our passion for food.”
Women mentoring women
Anderson says she has been fortunate to work with – and mentor – many intelligent, creative and passionate women over the course of her career, but she thinks there is still a need for more special programming to help women learn leadership skills.
“Some of that is going to come naturally because we see more women run agricultural businesses like I did with Issues Ink and with Emerging Ag where we’re able to hire young women and mentor them and grow their careers,” she says. “We need proactive engagement at every level to help all young people in agriculture succeed.”
Currently, Anderson has her hands full with her business, Emerging Ag, which is focusing on improving agriculture and food production worldwide.
“We are interested in how we garner more respect for the agriculture and food sectors and want to be part of practical solutions to the challenges of improving agriculture,” says Anderson. “Those challenges are highly varied. In a development context, the reality is almost a billion people who are farmers live below the poverty line. The very concrete things we need to do to change that have everything to do with the farming lives of people in Canada. They need good quality seed, they need land tenure, they need access to great extension services and knowledge sharing, they need the machinery and inputs to be successful at growing that crop, they need grain storage and ways to reduce their losses, they need access to markets and they need awesome agricultural research to fuel that whole process.”
All of these things that ignite Anderson’s passion led her to found Farming First, a global coalition for sustainable agricultural development.
“Those are the pillars of Farming First and the reality is in Canada we need to have conversations about how we do them and how we connect better to consumers so they have respect for those roles, and continue to improve the way we farm and do great things for the environment,” says Anderson. “But when we work on a development context, some of the access questions are very different. It’s a privilege to be able to span that horizon and have some practical, on the ground reality to take to international forums and help people think concretely about what they need to be able to help farmers.”
In our next blog post we will feature the story of another 2017 CAHF inductee, Jean Szkotnicki who talked with us about her induction, what led her to her career path, and her views on the changing role of women in agriculture.
Contact us today to find out how our compelling storytelling style and attention-grabbing, professional graphic design can help you get noticed and generate sales and success.