Heather Watson
Courtesy Photo

By Sandy Casselman
AgriNews Staff Writer

OTTAWA – “I’m still stunned,” Heather Watson said. “I know so many incredible women working so hard for our industry, I couldn’t believe my name would be put forward amongst such an amazing group of women. Already, I’m thinking about all the women I’d like to nominate for next year.”

In her statement, Watson was referring to the fact that she’s been named one of this year’s Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture (IWCA). She is the executive director of Farm Management Canada (fmc-gac.com). Watson is one of seven chosen in the 2022 instalment of the “recognition program designed to honour, highlight and celebrate women who are driving the future of Canadian agriculture.”

The IWCA recognition program (agwomen.ca) was launched in 2020. Watson’s co-recipients for this third instalment of IWCA include, in alphabetical order by last name: Valerie Carney (lead at Poultry Innovation Partnership), Mary Ruth McDonald (professor and research program director at the University of Guelph), Lisa Mumm (owner of Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds), Christine Noronha (research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Lana Shaw (manager of Southeast Research Farm), and Karen Tanino (professor at the University of Saskatchewan).

“I’m not quite sure where my passion for agriculture comes from,” Watson said. “I’ve always been drawn to agriculture and farm life. I think it has to do with the incredible people I grew up with in our small community surrounded by agriculture – so hard working and so kind and encouraging. And you have to admit, agriculture is pretty magical – creating and caring for plants and animals and watching them grow and sustain life. When I look around and think of the necessities of life, what could be more important than sustaining life so we can live incredible lives?”

Watson earned her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Guelph followed by a Master’s degree from the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. Before working for Farm Management Canada, Watson was a project coordinator at the Business Development Centre of the University of Guelph’s Kemptville Campus.

“I started out in this organization when I was 27 and took the lead at 28. Thirteen years later, I feel we’ve built a solid foundation despite many setbacks and obstacles encountered along the way,” Watson said. “I’ve had many people tell me they would have given up years ago and I can’t help but smile and feel proud. I think something I’m most proud of is my instinct to roll up my sleeves to get a job done even when I’m not sure I’m the best person for the job. My lack of confidence has always gotten in the way, but when I look back, I think, ‘Holy smokes, I did that!’ and I feel so proud. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I sometimes become too invested and try to do too much, so I also have to work hard not to take on too much and to accept the help of others along the way.”

With women having taken a backseat – sometimes an invisible seat – in agriculture in the past, did Watson face challenges because she’s a woman? Did she ever feel like she was at a disadvantage, or like she needed to prove anything?

“I personally never felt I was at a disadvantage because I’m a woman in agriculture, but it’s also hard to attribute my experiences to one characteristic – was it because I’m a woman, or because I started at a fairly young age, or because I am not a farmer, or a combination of these? It’s hard to say. I also recognize that it’s hard to say things could, should, or are different for others when we’re brought up in certain social norms. So, this is a difficult question to answer,” she said. “I know many women who have experienced added pressure and challenges in our sector, and I don’t want to speak for them or downplay their lived experiences. I’m not sure if it’s being a woman or just being the person I am, that I have felt the need to prove myself. I know I over-prep for meetings and go out of my way to make people feel comfortable around me, but is this because I am a woman, or because my personality is wired as a people pleaser who doesn’t want to make a mistake or anger anyone? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. And that’s why I think it’s important to have, and keep having, these conversations, and sharing our lived experiences – to shine light on what is, and what could be.”

Watson, along with her IWCA co-recipients, will be featured in an IWCA podcast series on AgAnnex Talks (agannex-talks.captivate.fm). The first episode will air on June 13 with a new episode airing bi-weekly. AgAnnex Talks is a bi-weekly podcast featuring conversations that matter to Canada’s ag industry. The forum is brought to listeners by the agriculture brands at Annex Business Media, which include Top Crop Manager, Potatoes in Canada, Fruit and Vegetable, Manure Manager, and Canadian Poultry.

“While there are other award programs out there, I think the title says it all – Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture – it’s an incredible honour and a wonderful platform to learn about each other, and from each other. It’s building a sisterhood and demonstrating that influence comes in all shapes and sizes. And I hope other women, especially young women, are inspired by our stories.”

What would she say to young women considering a profession in the agricultural industry?

“I would say, seek to understand yourself – your passions, your values, your definition of success, both personal and professional, to use your strengths and make a concerted effort to overcome the things that aren’t serving you well,” Watson said. “Be kind and patient with yourself and understand that it’s a journey meant to be enjoyed. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help along the way. Most importantly, be true to you, but take chances along the way that challenge you to grow and seize new opportunities.”

Watson said she believes the IWCA program is “definitely” having an impact on how women are perceived in agriculture. In addition to highlighting their achievements, it provides an opportunity for women in ag to share their stories, their experiences, and possibly help one another along the way.

“Something I’ve already said, but would like to reiterate is that being influential, or a leader, comes in all shapes and sizes. So often we attribute leadership and influence to those at the top of the pyramid, the ruthless or the loudest in the room. But the truth is, you’re going to do your best when you stay true to you and kind to yourself. It’s not only powerful; it’s empowering,” she said. “I think the advice I’ve received most often, which probably counts as the best advice, is not to forget to have a life. I have a tendency to be absorbed by my work and put everything else on hold. But you have to realize there will always be work to do – you have to make time for the things that matter, and I have to constantly remind myself of that – does this have to get done right now? Does it have to be perfect, or is it good enough? It’s important to think about the kind of life you want to lead and who can help you along the way.”

As for the future, Watson talked a bit about what she’s still hoping to accomplish. Where is she heading professionally and personally?

“I want to find independence and stability for our organization while expanding into new opportunities to serve the agriculture sector more than ever – to reach new heights,” she said. “On a personal note, I want to continue to build my confidence and dedicate more time to personal growth and development.”

Each year, the IWCA program includes a virtual summit where honorees share their knowledge on different topics. The 2022 program will culminate in a virtual event later this year, sometime in the fall.

“We know the role of women in agriculture has evolved over the years, but there are more female trailblazers in agriculture than ever before, and the IWCA program was designed to celebrate and honour their achievements,” Stefanie Croley, agriculture editorial director at Annex Business Media said in a statement prior to the second IWCA event in 2021.

In alphabetical order by last name, the IWCA 2021 winners included: Simone Demers Collins (SDC Consulting), Crystal Mackay (Loft32), Andrea McKenna (East Prince Agri-Environment Association), Ellen Sparry (C&M Seeds), Leona Staples (The Jungle Farm Ltd.), Tina Widowski (Egg Farmers of Canada Research Chair), and Noura Ziadi (AAFC-Quebec Research and Development Centre). The IWCA 2020 winners included Peggy Brekveld (Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Woodstar Farms), Barbara Cade-Menun (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Kristin Phillips (WP Acres Ltd. and Manitoba Ag Days), Karen Schuett (Livestock Water Recycling), Karen Schwean-Lardner (University of Saskatchewan), and Laura Van Eerd (University of Guelph).

To learn more about the IWCA recognition program, visit agwomen.ca. To listen to the AgAnnex Talks podcasts, visit agannex-talks.captivate.fm. To learn more about Farm Management Canada, visit fmc-gac.com.