It’s not only family farms facing the succession challenge these days.
Community efforts such as Growing Projects for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are looking to the future to see if they’ve inspired the next generation to carry on the cause.
One such venture finds itself in the middle of the process.
The Brownfield and District Growing Project was among the first on the Prairies, and has been underway for more than three decades.
“My dad and his cousin took the first load of grain from our project 32 years ago, and my dad will turn 90 this year,” said Faye Webber, the first woman to chair the Brownfield project.
The effort began as an outreach of the Brownfield Baptist Church, and is now into its third generation of volunteers. One is Webber’s son Jordan, who is involved at both the local level and as a national board member of the Foodgrains Bank.
“We have about half and half on our local committee. We have three members of the ‘next’ generation, and then three from the older generation — which would be my generation,” Webber said with a laugh.
Succession was on the minds of many at a recent meeting of Alberta Foodgrains Project leaders. Some groups are filled with seniors who are realizing they can’t carry on indefinitely and need some younger help. However, the dedication to helping tackle global hunger becomes a real heart work, so it’s not easy for volunteers to step away.
“It’s an emotional decision, as much as it is practical, because there’s such deep meaning and commitment when you are aware of what this means to people in the world,” said Webber.
“If I had to point to one thing in terms of succession and being successful, it would be that the older generation has to ‘choose’ to let go.”
Webber knows of what she speaks, as she and husband Bob, who also serves on the Growing Project board, are currently walking through the succession journey on their own farm.
Looking back on their Growing Project’s history, she said, it’s been key to always bring in the younger generation by inviting the whole community, kids and all, to take part. That includes the harvest days with combine rides, a celebration dinner, and even rock-picking days.
“It’s an inviting and welcoming place they have found all the way along,” she said. “There’s been a ‘growing into’ the care and commitment to the Foodgrains Bank. They grow a love for this work, so when they are asked to be a part, it’s not pulling them into this role. It’s where they feel a privilege to be a part of it.”
Succession planning goes beyond just the people organizing the project — it also speaks to the sustainability of the work itself, and adapting to changing times and farm circumstances.
When the Foodgrains Bank project began, farmers in the central Alberta community donated truckloads of their own grain that would be bagged and shipped to needy countries. It then evolved into selling the grain and using the money to buy grain in the countries that needed it most, both saving transportation costs and supporting farmers there. Growing Projects emerged as a full community effort, using rented land and donated inputs, with farmers bringing equipment to put in the crop and harvest it.
In Brownfield, a next-gen approach is being proposed for this year. It would involve using portions of fields to grow a crop instead of renting a specific field — a move designed to manage risk since clubroot has shown up in the region. It also hopes to broaden the involvement base by allowing for more individual participation.
Brownfield has also expanded its scope by bringing in ranch partners, who commit a cow for a market average price, with proceeds from the calf sale being dedicated to the Growing Project. A trial run this year has six cows as part of the program.
To maintain the community connection, the committee is considering a Harvest Day or even a week, where visitors could have combine rides at various farms. A celebration dinner after results are known is also a priority.
In addition, there’s an opportunity for the Brownfield group to help launch a sister project this year in the region.
When considering these and other changes, there are always active and healthy conversations, where all opinions are valued. That’s something that Webber puts a high value on because she views that ‘culture’ as key to a healthy succession process.
“The biggest thing is that the older generation is very aware and intentional about including the next generation, and letting go,” she said. “It really does come down to those things. (If we) value our younger people all the way along, when the time comes for them to step into some of these roles, their head is in it and they are a valued member on the committee. It’s not just plunking someone in there because of their age.
“I’m blown away by some of the young farm families’ heart and passion for this work, putting others ahead of themselves.”