Gabrielle Ferguson set out last fall to hear what the Ontario agriculture sector had to say about leadership programming.
The new director of the Rural Ontario Institute’s Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP) met with farmers, agriculture and rural businesses and organizations from Ridgetown to Ottawa to Thunder Bay at trade shows, kitchen tables, in board rooms and in hospitality suites.
She heard that passion for agriculture leadership programming continued to be strong and that the need for leadership training might be more important than ever.
Why it matters: AALP has provided the sector with a venue for training farmers and industry personnel on the skills to enhance their leadership abilities, but it has also created a significant-sized network within the sector.
“I found no one who told me there was not a need for leadership training in agriculture and rural communities,” she said during an interview at the Rural Ontario Institute’s (ROI) annual meeting recently near Guelph.
AALP is now a 35-year-old program. It is an 18-month executive development and leadership training program for people involved in agriculture and rural communities.
“It is an investment in yourself and it is building a network,” says Ferguson.
The program will be announcing its 18th class soon, but it is challenged by declining application numbers and more competition in the agriculture and business leadership training space.
Class 17 experienced some challenges with the popular international study tour part of the program postponed due to government travel restriction for its destination of Colombia.
The class will get its international trip in January 2020, to Spain.
Ferguson, a long-time OMAFRA employee and consultant, who also is an AALP graduate, says she heard three main points in her listening tour of the province.
- Keep AALP advanced: Keep it focused on the most relevant information about the sector, which is constantly changing.
- Increase the diversity of participants: That means diversity in farm size, type of farm, agriculture and rural sector workers and geography. The program is known for creating complex conversations and Fergusons says that diversity can add richness to those complex discussions.
- Engage the network: After 35 years of operation, AALP has more than 470 alumni.
“They sit on almost every sector organization board. They are managers and leaders in industry. They are leading government at all levels, municipal, federal, provincial. They have their finger on the pulse and they want to lead and want to help out and help others,” she said.
A recent survey of AALP graduates showed that they want to be involved, but haven’t always been asked.
Allan Thompson, who spoke at the ROI annual meeting, is a good example of an alumni who has led at many levels. He’s an AALP graduate, farmer, mayor of Caledon, an ethnically diverse and growing municipality on the edge of Toronto, and currently chair of the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association (ROMA).
“If I didn’t have the opportunities I did through AALP I wouldn’t be as effective as I am today,” he said, citing the ability to work with others and to see their viewpoints as an example.
AALP is also no longer the only leadership program available to farmers. Many commodity organizations have their own training to encourage leaders in their sectors to step up and serve the organizations. Agriculture companies have created their own executive development programs. There are university and private sector executive development programs.
Ferguson, however, sees AALP as different, working across all sectors to help address the large and complex challenges in agriculture and rural communities.
It is also highly focused on experiential learning, as the sessions are set across the province, into the United States and around the world. Classes visit farms and processors across the province.
“It gives a more global view of those things impacting you and your community,” she said.
AALP is also less expensive than other programs as it is partially funded by the industry.
Ferguson has been in her role for less than a year, but is moving quickly to update the program, re-engaging long-time program partner University of Guelph and its numerous departments and schools connected to agriculture and food, and bringing in other colleges and industry as part of a new curriculum advisory team.