The Advancing Agriculture: Future Leaders program, a mentorship program initiated by the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley Commission, is currently well underway, and I am honoured to be a part of it. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Jolien Witte, I was raised on a crops farm in the Netherlands and have come to Canada to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Alberta. The summer of 2017 has been bustling with the start of this mentorship program, the data collection and writing phases of my thesis at the UofA, and of course some visits from Holland.
I basically always have had an interest in agriculture; first by growing up on a potato and wheat farm, later by studying agriculture and its markets in university. My BSc degree was in (Agricultural) Management, in which we discussed topics like accountancy of farm businesses and private regulation systems such as different certification schemes for farm products, as well as the working of agricultural cooperatives. During my MSc degree, I assisted with various projects related to agricultural pricing and policy evaluation. The great thing about those bigger projects is that they are often in collaboration with other research institutes, government organizations and private companies, which helps to place the things you learn in school to see from a more practical perspective. That way I was able to do an internship at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC, where we worked on the determinants of corn futures prices with the goal of developing recommendations for regulations of agricultural futures markets, as well as exploring how these corn futures play a role in the risk management strategies of individual farmers.
For a different project, I assisted the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs with a study of the potato market in East Africa, and what the potential for Dutch (seed) potato companies could be in that region – both from a development perspective as from a marketing perspective. Other projects involved potential effects for agricultural markets once quotas for e.g. sugar and milk were abolished in the European Union.
In a nutshell, I have learned a great deal about agricultural policies during my time in Wageningen, and am grateful for the received support as my supervisors there were more like mentors to me. However, I feel like (and this is my personal observation) when agricultural policies are designed the voice of farmers sometimes gets overlooked, or noticed only further on in the process. I do know of course that incorporating the opinion of every single farmer is a time-consuming process, and most farmers are not that eager about filling out all kinds of surveys. Nevertheless, when an opportunity came up to participate in a project in Canada that investigates opinions of farmers, I grabbed it with both hands.
And so for my current MSc project, we are looking at how individual farmers view their industry and what they think of what is currently being done to improve their industry, how to “move into the future”. This all in the light of a changing environment farmers operate in; changing consumer demands, changing regulations, changing or added trading partners, etc. As such, the real question behind this research project is how adaptive or responsive we in agriculture are, and how that affects the decision-making processes back on the farm.
Because with today’s challenging business environment, the way farms are being run is changing too. On the one hand there are the big farms producing for (cash) crops for export markets, and on the other hand an increasing number of farms choose to diversify and sell their products locally. But whether big or small, local or export-driven, mixed or focused on a couple of crops or livestock, with owned or leased equipment, there is an increasing sort of pressure on farmers to be socially and environmentally responsible. Farmers themselves nowadays have discussions with consumers about their ways of production and have increased access to information from a variety of sources.
Farmers are more like managers of resources, whether they are financial resources, renewable like air and water, non-renewable such as fuel and fertilizer, or human resources. And farmers are required to have knowledge about all of them. Therefore, as a way of investigating how farmers run their businesses these days and how they make different kinds of decisions (strategic and operational), in our research project we are looking what kind of information sources and how often are being used by farmers in different situations. And although we are looking at beef producers specifically, I think this is applicable to other sectors too. How often is social media for example actually being embarked on to get more information on a certain production practice or to just form an opinion on something? I would love to know how other producers approach this, so if you are a farmer and have some useful insights on this, then please let me know!
With all that is going on these days, I think there are many opportunities for agriculture too, and so I am curious to see how Canadian agriculture can turn that into a competitive advantage and improve itself. As for me personally, this mentorship program will help me gain a better understanding of agriculture and its practices and Alberta, and to build a network with great people to learn from. I look forward to the time I can contribute back to Canada and its agricultural sector, and I am certain the AdvancingAg mentorship program is key to preparing me for when that time comes.