Jeremie Turcotte isn’t so sure he knows enough about agriculture to be considered a ‘young leader’ in the industry.
“I never spent a day of my life on a farm until four years ago,” said Turcotte, who now operates a 2,000-acre grain farm with extended family near Peace River.
“It’s so new to me, and I’m the one making these big decisions on a 2,000-acre farm. I feel totally lost sometimes.”
But when Turcotte was invited to take part in Alberta Canola’s Young Leaders training program in mid-March, he jumped at the chance.
“I figured it might expedite my learning,” said Turcotte, who started farming when a chance came up to work with extended family.
“This was an opportunity for me to learn and talk to people who have been doing it for a long time.”
Alberta Canola launched the training program three years ago in an effort to help the up-and-coming generation of farmers boost their leadership skills, both on the farm and in the industry.
“Our board has taken some leadership training, and it wanted to provide that kind of opportunity to young farmers — whether they one day end up on Alberta Canola’s board or on one of the other crop commissions or on a school board,” said Rick Taillieu, the organization’s manager of grower relations and extension.
“We wanted to give them some skills so that if they put themselves in a leadership position, they have those skills available.”
Each year, the Young Leaders program invites 20 farmers under the age of 40 from across the province for two days of hands-on training. Participants learn about industry forecasting, governance, policy advocacy, media relations, and even business etiquette.
Essentially, it’s a “training ground” for the next generation of farm leaders — the men and women who will be influencing agricultural policy, sitting on boards, and driving the industry forward.
“Young voices are important because they’re going to be the ones running the farm moving forward,” said Taillieu. “There’s value in bringing in younger people. They’re looking at how they’re going to farm 20 years down the road as opposed to thinking about how they’re going to retire successfully.
“You’re never too old — but you’re also never too young — to be a director or to get involved in other ways.”
“We may not be paying the bills yet, but we eventually will be, so we should have these skills and discussions,” he said. “This training helps us learn that we have a voice.”
That’s particularly important for young women in agriculture who face unique challenges getting more involved in the industry, said Nicole Sendziak, who also took the training.
“Women are a big part of the industry and I don’t think we have a big enough voice,” said Sendziak, whose family operates a 1,500-acre pedigreed seed farm near Thorsby.
“I think it is important to represent the female side of this industry, and that’s why I want to get more involved. But I don’t see it as a challenge. I see it as an opportunity.”
Like Turcotte, Sendziak was reluctant to take the training when first approached.
“Because I’m still new to the industry, I find it a little bit intimidating to figure out if I fit or how I fit,” she said. “But it’s important to round out your skill set. There’s always something you can improve on, and there’s always something you can learn from others in the industry.”
In addition to the networking opportunities, the sessions offered practical experience with dealing with government officials, attending a business dinner, and being interviewed by the media.
“It gave us a chance to put our skills to the test and practise,” said Sendziak. “There were a lot of tools that we were able to put in our tool kit during this training.”
The policy presentations were a highlight for both Sendziak and Turcotte. The group was split into smaller teams, which were each given a policy issue in the canola industry to research and speak on. Then each group was put into mock meetings with ‘government officials’ to make their case.
“If we do a policy meeting with a minister, they don’t want to talk to a staff member. They want to talk to a farmer,” said Taillieu. “This gives them a chance to see what it’s like to sit down and make an ask, or make your case in a very limited amount of time.”
“We got some hands-on experience that taught us how to be quick on your feet and communicate your message and get what you need from a government body,” Sendziak added.
Turcotte appreciated the opportunity to talk about “real issues in the farming community” and learn about different perspectives from around the table.
“It opens up your mind to a broader spectrum of those issues,” he said. “You’ve got to get out of your head and allow yourself to really understand the issue to create an informed opinion.
“Everybody has a different perspective and everybody’s perspective matters.”
For Sendziak, the training was a perfect starting point to get more involved in the industry.
“I think young farmers do want to get involved and that maybe we just need more opportunities,” she said. “I’d encourage any young farmer to participate when they have an opportunity like this. You’ll come away from it better than you were.”
This type of training should “almost be a requirement” for young farmers, added Turcotte.
“So many young farmers are stuck in the old ways of thinking and in their little communities,” he said. “If everybody took this training and learned new things and met new people from all over the province, we would get to a point where we can all grow.”