It’s safe to say that Wilf Harder of Lowe Farm and Ernie Sirski of Dauphin have been on different sides of a debate in agriculture a time or two over the years, but there is one thing upon which these farmers do agree.
This industry needs more people willing to step up, speak their minds and contribute their time guiding farm organizations and policy discussions.
Harder, one of the six inductees into Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame, and Sirski were both in Winkler last week, among the 300 or so gathered to celebrate people who have provided leadership over the course of their careers.
This year’s six inductees reflect the many forms leadership can take.
Charlie Froebe, a Carman-area farmer, recognized that the development of the canola industry was hindered by farmers’ inability to get post-harvest cash advances so they have marketing flexibility. Such advances were available for cereal crops sold through the Canadian Wheat Board but there was no program for open-market crops. So he built one, including the necessary computer software to support it.
Harder, a farmer and seed grower, became involved in farm policy through the co-operative movement. Herbert and Helen Kletke are tireless community workers who turned their Teulon-area farm into an extension vehicle for plot tours and demonstrations of new farming ideas. John Kuhl, one of the founders of the Southern Manitoba Potato Company, led nationally as president of the Canadian Horticultural Council. Vern McNair’s contribution was as a public servant who communicated extension information to farmers. 4-H leaders were collectively recognized for their 100 years of rural youth development work in the province.
But as the farming community gathers each year to recognize these past achievers there are niggling worries over whether the industry’s leadership pool is running dry.
As farms have grown larger, the rural community has shrunk. There are fewer people and those who remain are much busier running their farm businesses and keeping their community organizations afloat. Commodity groups are finding it hard to get people to fill volunteer director positions.
For Harder, participation in farm groups is about contributing to the democratic process. It is a privilege and a duty. He pointed to other parts of the world where people are dying for the rights Canadians take for granted.
Never one to back down from a debate, he says it’s not about everyone agreeing all of the time, but about contributing to a broader discussion. “A lot of us have different philosophies, but we all want to get to the same point,” he noted.
At the same time, he balks at the pressure to conform. “A lot of farm leaders today put their finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing so they can say something favourable.”
Sirski, a Dauphin-area farmer who has been promoting the need for leadership development, says the problem has become more apparent since the last of the Prairie grain co-operatives disappeared a decade ago.
“That was a great training ground for a lot of Manitoba and western Canadian farm leaders,” Sirski said.
Farmer members had a financial stake in those co-operatives, which provided an incentive for them to attend local meetings to hear what the CEO had to say. “You could learn how a meeting was run and from there had an opportunity to go to your annual general meeting and see how a big meeting was run and you got to learn about the business,” he said. “We lost all that.
“The second thing is our businesses. We are managing multimillion-dollar businesses right now and a lot of guys look at this and say, ‘I am spending a day or two or a week away from my farm, whereas my neighbour is out there working and managing his own business,’” Sirski said.
He understands why farmers stay home. He was among them until the early 1990s when the grain sector was struggling and farmers were looking for someone to mobilize them into action. Sirski stepped forward to help organize a rally drawing attention to farmers’ plight.
He was also pivotal in organizing a Manitoba Canola Growers Association leadership workshop earlier this year. That model is now being studied for its potential to build capacity for farm organizations through Growing Forward 2.
“We tried to get people thinking about being leaders and what it meant to be a leader,” Sirski said.
There’s something else these two gentlemen can agree upon — once they got involved, they were hooked.
“I’ve learned far more than I’ve ever given,” said Sirski. “I think it has developed me as an individual in a way I never would have done sitting on a tractor seat.”