Jessica Kelly on balancing work, farm and family

Jessica Kelly is the Direct Farm Marketing Program Lead with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and owns a sow operation with her husband in Perth County. She readjusting to life because she recently went on maternity leave with her first child, but took some time to share her experiences with us.

If you are interested in connecting with Jessica, contact her via email at jessmkelly@gmail.com

Please tell us about yourself and your career path.

I grew up on a hog farm near Drayton, so agriculture has weaved in and out of my life since the beginning. I studied business at the University of Western Ontario (forgive me, aggie friends!), but summers were spent in ag-related jobs and volunteer work: Farm and Food Care, Farms.com, and a probiotic yogurt project in Tanzania. There were certainly times at Western that I didn’t feel as though I was with “my people”, however I don’t regret it. With only two “farm kids” in my class of 350, I was a novelty and had many opportunities to teach my classmates about farming.

After undergrad, I taught at Western for three years and then landed at the University of Guelph to complete a Master’s in Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics (and international development) where my thesis looked at the farmers’ share of the food dollar in Canada. After my master’s I was fortunate to dive right into my current job with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

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Jessica with Leslie Forsythe(middle) and Cathy Bartolic(right) at the Queen’s Park Farmers’ Market to celebrate Local Food Week in June 2015

 

What do you do with OMAFRA? What does your “typical” day look like?

I am the Direct Farm Marketing Program Lead within OMAFRA’s Agriculture Development Branch. In this job, my aim is to help direct marketers (farmers’ markets, on-farm markets, agri-tourism, etc.) and food entrepreneurs access the information and build the skills they need to strengthen their businesses. There is a lot of variability in what I do throughout the year!  Conferences and training workshops fill my calendar in fall-winter; reports and administration are a main focus in the spring; and summer-fall is my time to hit the road and visit farm businesses.

Please tell us more about your farm. How do you balance roles to make the farm business run smoothly?

My husband, Stewart, and I own about 350 sows in Perth County and our farm business works very closely with my in-laws’ farm. We are also undertaking an expansion to capitalize on a business opportunity to raised pigs under a humane certification program. Our roles on the farm are primarily dictated by the fact that Stewart and I are, in many ways, total opposites! He’s amazing at building connections, seeing new opportunities and dreaming big. Without him, I might be too timid to try new things. I’m the detail person who loves to-do lists and asks the tough questions as a “reality check” when new ideas come up. Without me, he might be on to dream #3 before dream #1 is done. Since I work off the farm, my role is primarily bookkeeping in the evenings and weekend chores when an extra hand is needed.

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A family affair at the Ag Women;s Network Speed Mentoring event with her husband Stewart Skinner and son Bryce. This was Bryce’s first official AWN event! 

How do you define personal success? What steps do you take to get there?

For me, personal success is all about using your talents to make a contribution, no matter how big or small, and constantly striving to learn new things. I keep a journal of inspirational quotes; one favourite is from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To me this is a reminder that success is more than what you do, but how you do it.

Who would say is your biggest influencer/mentor? What have you learned from them?

One of just many important things I learned from my parents is the importance of being a lifelong learner – asking questions and learning no matter what age and stage you’re at.  When I was in grade 4, my Mom went back to school to complete the agribusiness MBA from the University of Guelph, while working more-than-full-time managing two farm businesses. My Dad was a city kid turned pig farmer, who learned from asking questions and soaking it all in.

In the spirit of these profiles helping others, are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?

Regret may be a better term, but I sometimes wish that I had pursued a designation (such as accounting) when I was at Western. At the time I decided against the specialized accounting courses because I (unreasonably, in hindsight) worried that I would be confined to be a career accountant doing audits day after day, which didn’t interest me. Lesson learned: opportunities are a chance to add an experience to your toolbox. They do not dictate your career path or close other doors.

What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career?

I’m currently on maternity leave, so the career questions on my mind are looking more to the future…childcare, balancing farm/off-farm/family, etc. I know many members of the AWN are amazing, active parents, so I’ll be paying closer attention to their perspectives!

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Jessica with her mom Joanne Selves and son Bryce before for the Hog Jog at the Ontario Pork Congress in June 2016

 

Speaking of maternity leave, do you have any professional advice for women who are preparing to do the same?

I’ve only been on maternity leave for a few months, so I’m going to recycle some advice given to me! The leader of our local Early Years centre always tells us to “leave our capes at the door.”  When we have superhero notions about parenthood and maternity leave we set ourselves up for disappointment. I’m someone who loves to-do lists and calendars, so for me, “taking off my cape” means recognizing that each day is different. One day a victory can be a day where I went grocery shopping, did farm books and made supper. Then another day is a victory because I got out of my pyjamas and took a shower, and that’s okay too.

How do you define agriculture? What do you think is the most important topic in agriculture right now?

I’ll answer these two together! My definition of agriculture is very broad – encompassing those involved in all links of the food production system and the supporting services. In my position with OMAFRA, I am fortunate to work with an amazing, eclectic, and entrepreneurial group of farmers ranging from on-farm cideries and butcher shops to pick-your-own farms and agri-tourism destinations.  This has been a great reminder about the diversity of the agriculture industry!

I think one of the most important topics in agriculture right now is the importance of unity when communicating with the public or working to improve our industry. Since agriculture’s so diverse it’s easy to draw artificial lines – direct marketing vs. commodity marketing, organic vs. conventional, supply-managed vs. not supply managed — but there are too few of us involved in the industry to not play on the same team.

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