From an Educational Assistant to a learner in her own rite, St. Benedict’s Sandra Hessdorfer is one of the young farmers selected for the 2021 Next Gen Agriculture Mentorship Program (Next Gen). Sandra is currently on leave from her EA job at Wakaw School due to COVID-19 and the need to protect her one son from the virus, but that doesn’t mean she has left. In fact, Sandra has done YouTube videos called “On the Farm with Mrs. H” where she covers topics such as farm safety, bottle feeding calves, seeding, hauling grain, and moving the calves to pasture to name a few. Mrs. H, as the students know her, was raised on a small hobby farm first in British Columbia and then in Alberta before moving to Saskatchewan to buy her own acreage when she was 19. She has always been an animal person and together with her husband have a mixed farm running about 50 head of angus cattle and producing grain as well. Her husband and brother-in-law work together to complete the work demanded on each other’s grain operation while maintaining their own separate farms and Sandra joins in driving truck, tractor or combine, filling whatever role is needed at the time.
On December 9, 2020 the Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan announced $200,000 in renewed funding for Next Gen, a Saskatchewan initiative delivered by Canadian Western Agribition (CWA). The funding will carry the program into 2023, allowing for two additional cycles of mentorship matches. “The objective of the program is to develop young leaders and prepare them to take on active roles in industry leadership, governance and efforts to build public trust. The program does this by pairing each successful applicant with an established member of the agriculture industry. It serves as an important part of our efforts to increase engagement between experienced professionals and the next generation of industry leaders. This renewed funding will allow 16 new mentees to enter the program over the next two years. Applicants should have clear developmental goals and exhibit strong leadership potential,” reads the new release from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“What we are looking for is someone with enough life experience to have made the decision already that, yes, I want to build my life, I want to build my career in this industry and now I’m just looking for some assistance and some opportunity to help build some skills and some foundational relationships around that,” said Agribition CEO Chris Lane. The program was launched in 2019 and it is currently in its third cycle of applicants focusing on the vital skills that are part of being successful in agri-business. The principle focal points are: industry knowledge, advocacy, networking, board & governance training, and social connections. An advisory board selects the successful applicants based on their industry involvement, existing skills, interests, abilities, desired outcomes, and overall fit in the program and from there, the applicants are paired with their mentors. “We'll go to our connections in the industry and say, hey, we've got someone here who really wants to learn about effective communication and telling the agriculture story around public trust for example, and we will find someone who's doing that work and leading in that work and then pair them up that way,” Lane said. Sandra has always been passionate about agriculture and once she became an EA she also discovered that she really enjoyed working with kids, Ag in the Classroom ties those together. When she applied in December 2020, she said she was hoping that if she got accepted it would help her find some direction in more ways to bring agriculture into education and be an advocate for that and the role women play in agriculture. She has just become a Board Member for Women in Ag and was excited to be paired with Sara Shymko, the executive director of Ag in the Classroom, as her mentor. The training, the experiences and the networking that this program provides will augment each participant’s knowledge and skills within the agriculture industry.
“The agriculture sector is an important driver of economic activity in our province. This program offers mentees new opportunities for knowledge sharing and network expansion while ensuring they have the resources they need to contribute to our thriving industry,” said David Marit, Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister. “We’ve been doing the mentorship program for a couple years now and it’s in partnership with the Canadian Western Agribition.” While Minister Marit may be under the illusion that the Next Gen program is just about “young kids” it is in fact aimed at young people under the age of 40 who have made the decision to be part of the agriculture industry and that are interested in governance, that want to be on commissions and boards and to be looking at Ag policy. On the Saskatchewan government’s website it reads:
The aging demographic of Saskatchewan's agriculture industry also pose a threat to industry growth. Industry organizations, boards and commissions experience challenges in recruiting and retaining producers on their boards, and industry regularly communicates their need for support in engaging and training young people to take on leadership roles. The Next Gen Agriculture Mentorship Program aims to provide young people within the industry the skills and experience necessary to take on these roles.
“It helps them so they’re not going onto these boards and commissions not knowing what it’s like and what their role is,” Marit said. “It really helps them to become a better board member and give them the experience that other professional people have had. The nice thing about it is that it’s really a one-to-one, so they learn from very smart people who have been involved in Ag policy and governance. It’s important that we hear the young folks and their ideas around Ag and it trains these young people to really get engaged in the whole Ag policy and governance structure. This is something that I’ve never had and we’re trying to develop that next generation.”
The continuing government support of this program is vital and to ensure that, Sandra noted, it is up to the mentees to show that they are utilizing every aspect of the program to the very best of their abilities and thereby show the worthiness of the program. For Sandra this program is a chance of a lifetime not only with all that she will learn and can achieve, but also to demonstrate to her boys that learning is lifelong and “you’re never to old to take on a learning experience like this.” They get to see that everyone is invested in their farm and the betterment of it. Everyone on a farm has a role to fill and it was actually her husband Chris who pushed her to apply for the program. His support and the support of her in-laws will make this 18 month journey that Sandra is embarking on a journey of growth not only for her but her whole family.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder