When Patti Miller began her career in agriculture 35 years ago she never aspired to be the president and CEO of the Canola Council of Canada or the Canadian Grain Commission’s (CGC) chief commissioner.
“I’m still surprised I am here,” Miller said two days before retiring as chief commissioner June 25, 3-1/2 years after taking on the position.
“No, they weren’t goals,” she said. “I guess some people go into their careers with five-, 10- and 15-year goals. But that certainly wasn’t me. I was excited by the opportunities that I had. My mom always said to me ‘I worked really hard to get this lucky.’
“But that message sticks with me. When I think about my career I think I have been so fortunate. But I also worked hard so when opportunities presented themselves to me and I was interested and excited about doing something I just went for it.”
Why it matters: After 35 years in agriculture Patti Miller retired June 25 after holding several key positions, including her most recent as chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission.
Heading the canola council and CGC are both high pressure because they require balancing competing interests, Miller said.
“People like taking potshots at government, and regulators in particular, because when you’re trying to balance those competing interests you’re always going to make somebody mad,” she said.
The CGC came under fire from some farm groups and grain companies when it said legislation wouldn’t allow it to refund most of the $130-million surplus the CGC earned between 2013 and 2017, following an increase in CGC user fees and higher-than-average grain production.
The CGC put $40 million in a contingency fund to cover operating costs in years when its revenue falls due to reduced grain exports.
About $4 million of the surplus was set aside to provide farmers with fusarium head blight and falling number measurements for wheat submitted through the CGC’s annual Harvest Sample Program. But the CGC has also said it would like to invest some of the surplus to make other improvements.
Miller was president and CEO of the canola council from 2012 until 2017. The council represents the canola value chain from farmer to exporter, and while members have much in common, it’s not always easy to reach consensus, she said.
Case in point was Richardson’s decision in December 2017 to quit the council because it felt it wasn’t getting enough value. Miller had moved to the grain commission by then, but knew of Richardson’s concerns earlier. But the council had its hands full trying to get China to agree to keep its market open to Canadian canola seed because it worried it could spread blackleg, a canola disease.
“That was all consuming,” she said.
“There was no walking away from it, 24-7, particularly for the period that they were threatening to shut the market…
“It was a real pressure cooker and at the end… we had a successful conclusion, albeit a temporary one.”
As for dealing with Richardson’s, Miller said she took direction from the board directors.
“The focus really was on China because it was such a significant market,” she said. “And quite frankly that’s exactly what my board wanted me to do.”
Dealing with China was both a low- and highlight of her career, Miller said.
Working with people and building a stronger team was Miller’s biggest career highlight, she said.
“I told the (CGC) staff last week, ‘commissioners and chief commissioners we come and we go.’ Sure they are tough jobs, and we have to make some difficult decisions, but at the end of the day the team and the organizations are the ones that are there constantly, and they’re the ones that really get things done on the ground.
Born in Winnipeg and raised in Saskatoon, Miller spent her summers on her maternal and paternal grandparents’ farms near Tisdale, Sask.
“It was there that I really developed a love for the sector,” she said.
“I shovelled manure. I chased cattle through canola fields and that’s not fun.”
Miller earned a degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and went on to get a master’s degree in agricultural economics at the same university.
Her first job in 1985 was as a wheat analyst with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa. She went on to work for the department in Winnipeg on functional foods and nutraceuticals, became executive director of AAFC’s Grains and Oilseeds Branch and also worked on farm income programs.
She was seconded to work in then agriculture minister Charlie Mayer’s office for nine months in 1992.
In 1996 Miller joined Cargill in Winnipeg doing communications and government relations.
In 2002 Miller rejoined AAFC.
In March Miller turned 60 and was eligible to retire.
“I just decided it was probably the right time for me,” she said.
While Miller doesn’t rule out working again, she says she has other things to do, including travelling once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
“Someone gave me some really good advice… if you’re going to retire take some time and get used to life as a retired person and if opportunities come along and you are ready to make those choices, great…”
Miller likes to cycle and kayak and hopes to do a lot of that.
Miller said she was a “mediocre university student,” but overcame that with hard work.
She also came to understand a good manager tries to surround themselves with smart people.
“Just be open to listening to everybody around you and not feeling like you have to have all the answers,” Miller said.
“I think people who have adversity in their life at different periods of time often come out stronger. One of the things my mother flings at me is ‘that which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ “I’m always saying, ‘am I strong enough yet?’”