15 Minutes With… Mary Robinson, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (July 19, 2022)
Canadian agriculture is no stranger to the struggles seen around the globe in the sector – climate change, supply chain dilemmas, economic issues related to pricing and availability of goods, and exchange rate and increasing competition at the international level, to name a few. However, they are on a positive track to counter these challenges, thanks to one of its outstanding leaders, Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA).
In this position since 2019, Robinson has also steered the more than 200,000 farmers who comprise this largest farmers’ organization in Canada, through the pandemic, export sanctions, and drought (in the prairies), and floods (in British Columbia). She is steadfast in her mission to work with the sector towards “sustainable solutions in uncertain times”, and fully embraces that “Canadian agriculture is in a unique position when it comes to long-term sustainability and growth. While most industries can only hope to curb their emissions, agriculture has the potential to be a natural climate solutions provider and net carbon sink. With technologies and practices, we can trap carbon in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere and improving our soil health,” as she told the crowd at the 2022 Annual General Meeting of the CFA in March 2022.
Farming is in Robinson’s blood as well, having been managing partner of a sixth generation family farm operation, Eric C. Robinson Inc., and its sister company Island Lime, for decades. She also serves on the boards of associated companies PEI Agromart and Mid-Isle Farms, as well as on the boards of PEI Federation of Agriculture and World Farmers’ Organization. Robinson became the first female chair of the Canadian Ag HR Council board in 2017, and in 2021 was named one of Canada’s 25 Most Powerful Women in Business by Atlantic Magazine.
Robinson will be a speaker at the upcoming 2022 Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Summit (in Dallas, September 26-28) on the challenges Canadian farmers face. Joining her on-stage to present the U.S. perspective will be Rachel Pick, director of programs and operations for U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA). Mary Shelman, founder of the Shelman Group, will moderate the panel.
WIA Today caught up with Robinson last week at CFA’s headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario.
1). COVID -19 brought new dilemmas to the global food industry. How did CFA rise to the challenge of working with the Canadian government to prioritize food production?
During the initial pandemic, CFA made various calls for support to the Federal Government, urging them to prioritize food production over everything other than healthcare. Our members had serious concerns over a variety of decisions and complications arising from the pandemic.
Initially CFA focused on allowing Temporary Foreign Workers into the country to work on Canadian farms. Many farmers could not find adequate labor to plant, grow, and harvest their crops without these workers. The government heeded this call and allowed these workers into the country.
Following that, CFA ran the “Food for Thought” campaign – the largest campaign in our organization's history – which urged urban consumers to write to their Members of Parliament to help improve Business Risk Management programs for farmers, which are for disaster relief. This program was a great success, and farmers saw the first improvements to these programs in almost a decade.
2). Finding sustainable solutions in ag in uncertain times is the focus for CFA in 2022. Can you explain some of the initiatives underway towards this goal?
There are a wealth of initiatives around sustainability in agriculture. These initiatives, such as the Canadian Agri-Food Sustainability Initiative, look to develop sustainability standards, as well as measure and quantify carbon sequestration and emission reductions.
The carbon offset credit system, once implemented, should reward farmers for sequestering carbon, giving a strong financial incentive for sustainability measures where otherwise there would be no return on investment for these activities.
3). In 1991, Canada was the first Western nation to recognize Ukraine’s independence, and in 1994 signed a bilateral agreement for cooperation on security and defense, trade, and advancing Ukraine's democratic and economic reform efforts. How has the current war affected this relationship, relative to agriculture and assistance in that realm?
CFA is not typically involved or consulted when it comes to matters of foreign aid. We know that the Canadian government has pledged funds to aid with the Ukraine's wheat storage, a key factor to helping the country not lose entire harvests.
4). The restrictions enacted in 2019 against exporting Canadian canola to China were lifted this year in mid-May. How is the sector progressing with this, and do you think there will be long-term repercussions?
The removal of restrictions was a positive step forward, restoring full trade in canola with China and ensuring that all Canadian exporters are treated equally by the Chinese administration. While we are unaware of any long-term repercussions, we do know the Canadian government is attempting to diversify our trading partners.
5). Not to divulge too much info from your upcoming WIA panel discussion, but could you name the top three current ag challenges for the CFA members?
I would say the top three challenges are:
Acquiring the support and recognition needed to truly turn agriculture into a net carbon sink for Canada.
Chronic labor issues that have been ongoing for decades and continue to deteriorate.
Creating a more stable business environment for food producers in Canada that adapts to new levels of systemic risk from climate change, geopolitical disputes, and trade wars.
ABOUT MARY ROBINSON
Mary Robinson has been the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture since February 2019. She is a managing partner of a 6th generation family farm operation, Eric C. Robinson Inc. and its sister company Island Lime and serves on the boards of associated companies PEI Agromart and Mid-Isle Farms. She holds a degree in economics and business and has worked in Canada and Scotland in all facets of the potato industry (agronomy, food processing, and production).
Outside of this, Robinson plays an active role in industry politics. She joined the PEI Federation of Agriculture board in 2008, and led the Federation as president from 2015 to 2017. After serving on the Canadian Ag HR Council board for seven years, she became CAHRC’s first female chair in 2017.
Robinson has extensive experience in executive and governance roles. She was selected by two Ministers of Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (AAFC) to serve on AAFC’s National Program Advisory Council (2015-2017) and the External Expert Panel of the Business Risk Management Program Review (2017), as well as by Federal Minister of Environment to serve on the Sustainable Development Advisory Committee.