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Executive Director Report

Andrew Graham, Executive Director

I want to welcome everyone to our 83rd annual general meeting. Quite an accomplishment by any measure!

Some aspects of the past year, for me, have been like no other at Ontario Soil and Crop. I’m quite sure that many others can make a similar claim. Hopefully we come out of it stronger and wiser, only time will tell.

We are all riding the ups and downs of the seemingly endless pandemic rollercoaster. It takes a toll on everyone with the constant need for adjustment and dealing with the mental stress of not knowing what’s next. Our experiences within Soil & Crop can be categorized by most as tiresome, and pales in comparison to those farm businesses coping with major supply chain interruptions, staff shortages and global market uncertainties.

Staff and their families have remained healthy and have continued working throughout, albeit with interruptions for some. And it is worth noting as an upside, the calamity has spurred innovation that will persist long after the pandemic has subsided. Our thinking has changed on what is possible in the workplace and in the local associations, and there are numerous signs of resiliency, determination, and empowerment that we should be proud of. We found new ways to work and realize success. Congratulations to the entire roster of dedicated staff and volunteers whose ideas and creativity fuel job satisfaction and efficiencies.

There are signs the “Zoom fatigue” associated with so much on-line activity is fading, thanks to inspired ideas and ingenuity that are fueling superior on-screen events. The Ontario Agriculture Conference that we support alongside OMAFRA and the University of Guelph was a shining example of what can be accomplished.

OSCIA is a dynamic, committed, and relevant not-for-profit organization. We are a service provider first to our membership, and secondly through the various programs we deliver to the broader farm community in education, cost-share and applied research. As such, we need to keep a close eye on the quality of our service. We accomplish that through careful listening and monitoring, measuring our performance, investigating and assessing better ways to conduct our business, and adopting new practices to keep us moving forward. Back in 2019 at our AGM guest speaker Kevin Stewart reminded us of the “power of networking” and the need to constantly learn, un-learn, and re-learn. If we are to remain in this business, we need to embrace continuous improvement to remain on top.

Acting on the needs of our membership, and those of the governments and corporations that invest in the programs we deliver, is one way to convincingly demonstrate how we can meet their needs better than anyone else. We must recognize the risk of dismissing the signs of change and miscalculating the desire of the majority.

Significant gains were realized in 2021 through investing time and effort to better understand our workplace culture at Soil & Crop and committing to elevate it. It is very rewarding to hear glowing accolades from new employees about how friendly, kind, helpful and knowledgeable their co-workers are. We strive to provide a workplace that is stimulating, collaborative, rewarding and provides opportunity for personal growth for everyone. A space where people can be authentic and be themselves. We want to welcome those individuals (regional directors, staff, and Regional Communication Coordinators) that chose to bring their skills and knowledge to OSCIA over the past twelve months.

I want to acknowledge the foresight and unwavering support provided by the executive committee towards the workplace culture project and extend appreciation to the management team in the Guelph office who are leading the change.

A series of consultations involving full-time and part-time staff have led to consensus on four core values that will define workplace culture at Soil & Crop for years to come. They are:

1. Embrace Innovation and Growth – embracing new ideas and opportunities and adapting to change through diversifying our processes and procedures and improving existing ones.

2. Empower Our People – Creating an empowering culture that celebrates our successes and enables people with tools, resources, and support.

3. Foster Sustainability – Ensuring the work we do improves the viability and sustainability of rural Ontario and Ontario agriculture.

4. Communicate Effectively – Establishing clear, honest, and consistent methods of communication with others through sharing, listening, and collaborating.

We want everyone in the organization to know about these core values and help us to ensure they are present in every action we take. There is lots of work ahead of us, but we have a solid plan in place to guide us.

Over the past year the Board of Directors has confronted a number of challenges, some anticipated and some not. I congratulate their strong leadership, integrity, and determination to confront controversy and see changes through for the betterment of the organization’s future. The prudent response is not always the most popular choice. The decision to implement a substantive increase in the provincial portion of the membership fee was difficult but entirely responsible, and it has been gratifying to see broad acceptance across the local associations who recognize the many important services and grants provided to them by the provincial organization. We certainly appreciate the valuable support generously provided through OMAFRA, but it is realized that we cannot sustain our grassroots membership opportunities and activities with a financial plan that leans too heavily on the uncertainty of government funding.

One year ago, we introduced you to our new office on Woodlawn Road in Guelph. It’s proving to be a marvelous decision in terms of productivity, a stimulating and comfortable environment, and cost efficiencies. Staff finally returned on a regular schedule in early November and were settling into the new surrounds nicely, only to learn by mid-December that they would be back to telecommuting due to the recurring waves.

New program opportunities have come our way over the past 12 months that have permitted us to stretch our thinking on program design and optimize learning experiences through our educational offerings. We are grateful for the ongoing confidence in our work expressed by OMAFRA, OMECP, and ECCC, and have welcomed the opportunity to engage again directly with AAFC and Syngenta. I encourage you to listen closely to the reports that will be delivered by key staff later in this meeting that will demonstrate impressive progress on many exciting programs that offer opportunities to the broader farm community, and special projects that engage and extend benefits to members. You will see our delivery portfolio is expanding. Our engagement in applied research in the field has grown with the delivery of Living Lab-Ontario project, and the Mobile Soil Technology Suite that we were just getting off the ground one year ago has already demonstrated its superb potential to engage members and enhance learning opportunities in soil health.

You will learn about the re-development of the website that is underway, and about the refinements and continued training taking place on the membership platform which is being embraced by a growing number of RCCs and local secretaries. The Innovator e-newsletter has certainly enjoyed success, but we need to find ways to boost readership levels across the membership. With the analytics available to us we can carefully monitor who is opening the quarterly newsletter and it is clear we still have some challenges. The newsletter is one of several key vehicles we rely on to tell our stories and engage members.

OSCIA continues to participate in programming and investigations in support of the Soil Action Group which is centered on following through on the recommendations formulated in the province’s Soil Health and Conservation Strategy that was released in 2018. We are also contributing to the Soil Health Marketing Working Group who recently made a soft launch of the new “Soil For Life” campaign that we hope the agricultural community will rally around. It is an effort to illustrate collective support across the industry for this precious resource.

My many years at Soil & Crop affords me the opportunity to glance back over our impressive track record of program delivery accomplishments stretching back 34 years. As a not-for-profit, farmer-centric province-wide organization, the farming community has long looked to OSCIA as the leader in delivering program opportunities that support environmentally sustainable farming practices, and rightfully so. We are uniquely qualified to reliably deliver all aspects of educational, cost-share incentive and applied research programming across Ontario. OSCIA is a leader in partnering with government and industry to offer tools and programs that support both large and small farmers in creating, maintaining, and building upon a sustainable, responsible, and dynamic agricultural sector for Ontario.

Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) remains as our most recognizable initiative. Since its province-wide introduction in 1993, tens of thousands of Ontario farm businesses have voluntarily participated.

In our history of incentive program delivery, OSCIA has offered a broad range of cost-share constructs and different delivery models in collaboration with investors including provincial and federal governments, foundations, and corporations. We have administered incentive payments estimated at $250 million dollars in environmental projects alone.

Diversification in programming reflects our strengths and capacities, provides stability to our operations and staff, and entirely aligns with the strategic action to generate multiple income streams. We have evolved over the years to best position Soil & Crop to meet new program challenges. Re-inventing ourselves while holding firm on our traditional values.

As we will soon be moving into the final year of several programs supported through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, and Living Lab, we are turning our energies to actively seek out new opportunities and make it clear to potential investors that we are open for business.

“Probing Soil Health” is a very appropriate theme for this meeting. Our ongoing applied research and programming in support of minimizing soil disturbance, diversifying crop production systems, reducing compaction, long-term use of cover crops, and building soil organic matter to conserve soil health and improve water quality, will continue. On the immediate horizon we see descriptors including “climate readiness” and “applying nature-positive agriculture” to restore soil functionality and increase biodiversity that we’ll surely see more of in upcoming initiatives.

It is a privilege to serve as Executive Director and extremely rewarding to be surrounded by such dedicated and talented leadership and staff. We thank the farmers who express their willingness to support the organization through the purchase of memberships and volunteer efforts, express our appreciation to the private and corporate businesses who generously support our activities, and finally, we wish to extend gratitude to the provincial ministries, federal departments and corporations that confirm their confidence by awarding promising new funding agreements to OSCIA. We want you all to feel welcome and we are very pleased that you are part of OSCIA. Thank you, enjoy your annual meeting, and stay safe.