By Tim Kalinowski
In 1810 the first descendents of newly-elected Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson settled onto their little farm in Augustine Grove, Prince Edward Island. Six generations later, likely none of those early relatives would have imagined their distant daughter becoming the first ever female elected to lead the largest farm advocacy organization in the country.
“How much more of an exciting role can you imagine, then getting to steer the ship?” she asks. “I am really excited. I think the role (outgoing President) Ron Bonnett has played has paved the way for really exciting times in this role. I think Ron did an exceptional job of getting things geared up to a point we are in a nice position now.
“The CFA has no political bias, which I think is incredibly important, and we’re well-recognized across the industry, and we continue to build on relationships within the industry, which is certainly going to be one of my primary focuses: To ensure the group of people working in agriculture in Canada, and all the facets therein, we can sit at the table together and sort out what is going to be best for all of us.
“There is going to be people who disagree, for sure, on issues, but we want to be able to sit at one table and hash that out amongst ourselves,” she says.
Robinson is aware of the historical importance of her election without dwelling on it too much as she prepares to roll up her sleeves to work for Canadian agriculture.
“I am hearing from a lot of women who are excited not only by my position, but also to see the first ever female Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Having said that, I come from a province where is not revolutionary to be an ag leader and female at the same time. I was the third female PEIFA president.”
As for working alongside newly-appointed federal Ag Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau? Robinson says although Bibeau does not come from a traditional ag background the Minister has insights and experience which could be very useful to the Canadian ag industry as a whole.
“We can focus on where we think someone lacks strength or we can focus on where they have strength,” states Robinson. “Looking at her in the latter lens, I see someone who has a lot of experience in international trade. When your first conversation you bring up with her is about canola, it is pretty nice she understands trade.
“The most important thing we can do at CFA is ensure we have a strong line of communication with her, and she made it clear to me that she is a collaborator, she is a good listener, and she is good at carrying a message within her department and beyond when that message needs to be delivered.
“I think she is good at that, and there is also all kinds of wonderful things we could look at with her.”
Robinson says the greatest challenge facing agriculture in Canada is a lack of understanding of the industry across different departments of government, and in a broader social context in an increasingly urbanized Canadian populace.
“When I spoke with Minister Bibeau after I was first elected president, we spoke about the role for her to be a champion cross-departmentally within the federal government, and working to ensure these barriers which exist for agriculture can be lessened,” explains Robinson. “We see over and over again many of these departments don’t understand the intricacies and challenges of agriculture. We really need to do a better job of communicating within all of government. And it all leads into the public trust conversation, right?
“Like somebody said the other day, the tectonic plates of agriculture are moving right now,” she adds. “There seems to be a lot of change and upheaval. I think we are at a very exciting time here where things are moving, and we really have an opportunity in agriculture to capitalize, capture audience and encourage people to put their oar in the water and pull with us.”
Robinson looks forward to being a messenger for agriculture coast to coast, but does regret it will mean spending less time on the ground working with farmers. Her family owns Eric C. Robinson Inc. and Island Lime back home.
“My dad actually came home after getting his chemical engineering degree to start our fertilizer and crop input businesses,” Robinson explains. “We have been in that since the late 1960s. So what I do, the dirt on my boots, is I operate a custom agricultural lime application business. I drive a tractor-trailer when I need to, and one of my biggest concerns in taking this job is I needed CFA to sign off on the fact come spring I am off doing my business. I am also a certified crop advisor; so I work with producers from stem to stern here. Because of that, I have exposure to such a broad base of farms, and I hear of the challenges financially, the stresses, and the opportunities—you get to hear everything. I love my dirty-boot job.”