You may know Joanna Follings from the pages of farm publications where she shares crop advice as part of OMAFRA’s Cereal Specialist role. Joanna shares her own advice with us, and how prioritizing positive relationships makes reaching our own goals easier.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.
I grew up on a dairy and cash crop farm near Ayr, Ontario, so from a pretty young age I developed a strong passion for agriculture. I attended the University of Guelph and earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. During my undergrad studies I worked for a number of agriculture companies including Cargill, BASF and DuPont. After graduation I worked for the Agricultural Adaptation Council as a program coordinator where I assessed research proposals for funding and managed the approved projects through to completion.
After two years of working in the industry I decided to go back to school. Once I completed my Master’s in Plant Agriculture, I was successful in getting my first job with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) as a Research Analyst in the Research and Innovation Branch. I really enjoyed that role but really missed working directly with the agriculture industry, particularly with producers. That’s when I made a huge switch and was successful in getting the Cereals Specialist position with OMAFRA last October.
Tell us about your role and what your “typical day” looks like.
I am the provincial Cereals Specialist with OMAFRA. I am responsible for providing Ontario growers with production and management information on cereal production systems and collaborating on applied research and demonstration projects. I wouldn’t really say I have a “typical day” because every day is quite different depending on the time of year (which is one of the many reasons I love my job). Some days I can be found writing articles and researching topics that are relevant to Ontario growers and other days I am on the road giving presentations or working with researchers and growers on research projects.
How do you define personal success? What steps do you take to get there?
I would have to say that personal success is feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride in what I am doing on both a professional and personal level. No matter how small my contributions may be, if I feel like I am making even the slightest difference for the better, that makes me feel incredibly successful.
In order to get there, you have to have positive relationships and partnerships in both your professional and personal life. I am a strong believer that the relationships we build with people are very important for achieving our goals. We also have to refuse to let ourselves get comfortable. Take risks! Pushing the boundaries and trying things we never could imagine ourselves doing and then coming out the other side saying “Wow I did it” is the best feeling in the world.
What’s the biggest professional and/or personal challenge you’ve had to face? And what did you learn from that experience?
I recently went through a very challenging personal experience. I don’t want to share all the details but what I can say is that I learned no matter how difficult life may seem at the time, you will get through it and it will get better. You will come out of some challenges as a different person but sometimes that is a good thing. I also learned how important it is to surround yourself with positive people and don’t be afraid to lean on them for support. This applies to both your personal and professional life and goes back to my point about the need for building positive relationships in your life.
Who has been your greatest influencer and/or mentor? What have you learned from them?
I have been incredibly lucky to have had a number of positive influencers/mentors in my life but I would have to say my parents have been the biggest influencers. They taught me the importance of being respectful, hard work, determination, having an open mind and a solid handshake! They also taught me how to stand up for myself and to always learn from your mistakes.
Learning from our mistakes is an important, but sometimes tough, part of life. In the spirit of these profiles helping others, are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?
So I am the first to admit it, I make a lot of mistakes! One mistake in particular was in my old role as a Research Analyst where I took on too many very different projects. I used to be very afraid of saying no and asking for help. I didn’t want it to appear that I wasn’t working hard enough or that I wasn’t good at my job so I had the tendency to say yes to everything. I also didn’t want to burden others with my work so I didn’t reach out for help. As a result, I ended up having to put in a lot of extra time, lost a lot of sleep, and at the end of the day I wasn’t really happy with the work that I had done. After that I learned that it is ok to say no sometimes and to ask for help. No one will judge you or criticize you, if anything they will respect you more for being honest.
What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career?
Right now I am trying to figure out what to do next in terms of professional development. I have often thought about an MBA, but would be curious to know what other designations, courses, workshops, etc. AWN members have found to be of value in terms of personal and professional growth.
What do you think is the most important topic in agriculture right now? Or what should be?
I think there are a number of important topics in agriculture right now including, but not limited, to how we communicate with the public about agriculture, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. Personally, I think we as an industry can do a better job of working together to come up with solutions or a path forward in some of these areas. There are some pretty remarkable people working in this industry with some amazing ideas that we just don’t tap into enough.
Do you have a piece of advice for young women starting their career in agriculture?
Don’t be afraid to take risks! I know sometimes we might be hesitant to go back to school or try new things but I think we learn and grow the most when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone. I was terrified to go to graduate school and to take on my current role as the Cereals Specialist, to the point where I almost said no to both opportunities. I am incredibly thankful I said yes to both because I have learned so much from these experiences.