Industry Profile – Marie McNabb

Marie McNabb is a dairy farmer in Waterloo County who shares her expertise on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. She is also a leader in her community, stepping up to help in leadership roles in various organizations. As part of #AWNGetOnBoard week, she shares her experiences to help support and inspire other women in Getting on Board!

If you’re interested in connecting with Marie, contact her via email at

To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

Growing up in a farm family of six siblings, we were all encouraged by our Mom to go to

2015 Liam's Birthday

Marie McNabb with Husband Ken and three sons

university or college. I learned at an early age, the value of participating in volunteer organizations and the benefits they provide to people and the community. My earliest exposure was to 4-H, which brought me into contact with county Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) staff and the local leaders. All of this sparked my interest in taking agriculture at the University of Guelph.

After graduating, I worked with the OMAF(RA) for 14 years in Toronto, Dufferin County, Halton and Peel Regions. I held a number of positions over the years as Assistant Ag Rep, Acting Ag Rep, and Farm Management Specialist. I built up a clientele that respected my ability to respond to their needs.

Following the birth of my third child, I opted to join my husband as a 50 per cent partner in our dairy operation as well as start a part-time bookkeeping business. I have worked casually for an accountant for the past 10 years, assisting with the completion of applications for risk management programs. I work at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in the fall manning the show’s office acting as reception and the front line problem solver for exhibitors and attendees.

I have always been involved in community organizations. Since 4-H as a child and Junior Farmers as a teenager and young adult, I have served in board, executive and committee roles.  These included a Cooperative Nursery School, county 4-H associations, Minor Hockey Association, School Council, Dairy Producer Committee etc.

You are currently a director on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. How did you start on the board?

Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative is a dairy processing company owned by over 1,200 Ontario dairy producers. We have $660 million in sales with seven processing sites and 900 + employees. The Board is comprised of 10 dairy producers, of which two are women, and there have been women on the board since 2005. We are a Governance board and there are also 60 delegates (15 in each of four Zones).

I was asked to let my name stand as a Delegate in our Zone and was elected by fellow dairy producers in 2010. I ran for the Delegate position on the Audit Committee the following year. In 2012, a Director position was available in our Zone. I was approached by other Directors to consider the position, and I researched the position, talking to directors, delegates and members. I decided that I was very interested in the opportunity of learning more about the dairy processing industry and the challenge of being a Director of a dairy cooperative.  My husband also gave me the green light to go for it.

I felt I had the skills to bring to the board and was more than willing to learn what I didn’t know about the processing side. At no time did I get the feeling that being a woman was going to determine whether or not I was going to successful. Three of us were nominated and ran for the position. I was elected and completed first three-year term and just started my second term.

I believe that not enough women run for positions. We are just as qualified and have just as much time as our partners.

Can you tell us about what your responsibilities on the board include?

It takes commitment, time management and getting to know the voters. I made phone calls to people to encourage them to come to the annual meeting. I didn’t ask them to vote for me, but did ask them to support the election process. I was the first person to use a PowerPoint presentation in a speech and am still remembered for that.

As a Director, I am away roughly 55 days a year. Board meetings are two days a month in Mississauga. I sit on one board committee and I am responsible to several outside organizations such as Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada and OnCoop. Our day-to-day work involves daily emails with news articles from around the world covering dairy and related issues.  We also receive updates on Gay Lea business as it pertains to the board and will typically have 15 to 20 reports to read prior to board meetings. At the board table we make decisions on capital purchases of equipment, land, as well as discussions of acquisitions and alliances with other businesses. We are responsible for setting the strategic direction for the cooperative. The hiring and performance reviews of the CEO are board decisions as well.

Do you have tips for AWN members who are interested in or considering board positions? 

How do we as women get to the point of recognizing the ability to lead, in others and ourselves? Things I have done that led me to being asked to run for the board include networking in the community, imagining myself in leadership roles in local organizations, and stepping forward to showcase to others that I could move into a more complex leadership role.

It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.jpgAnother key aspect in taking on these leadership roles is the ability to represent the whole and not yourself. Also, it’s important to learn about and understanding your fiduciary responsibilities. Understanding this concept, you will be a much more respected leader.

Along the way I was willing to learn, make mistakes, own them and learn from those mistakes, and solve them either by apologizing or making it right for those involved (or both).

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

My definition of success has changed over the years. I relate it now more to happiness. Success is a combination of teaching, inspiring, motivating, leading, mentoring, visioning, goalsetting and being part of a team. I am happy when I can work toward these. If I, my family, co-workers, or fellow board directors cannot derive a sense of pleasure (or at least contentment) from a decision, I don’t think we have been successful.

What is the biggest professional/personal challenge that you’ve had to face? What did you learn from that experience?

I ran for a board because I felt I could save it. My husband could see I was not enjoying the experience when I came home frustrated and angry with the politics. I have always prided myself on being value driven and ethical. For the first time in my life, I withdrew from a volunteer commitment. It is not something I am proud of even though I was much happier once I made the decision to leave the organization. I had taught my kids that when you make a commitment, you see it through to completion and still believe this to be true! I learned that you are the best board member when you are passionate and committed. You must believe in the organization and their mandate.

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

I have several.  First my Mom, as my Dad passed away when I was 17. Mom saw that all of us had the opportunity to go to university or college. I am one of four girls and we are all university educated. Also five of my closest university friends have enjoyed careers in agriculture. These women and my family are my support team; along with my husband, Ken. He plays a very large part in my decisions in assessing whether we can manage the farm and the family, while one of us takes on leadership roles. It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.

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

I’ve been asked to consider stepping up for the executive of the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board. I need to fully consider the commitment of time, the learning curve, which I must be ready to take on and examine my own wants and needs (as well as my husband’s!) to make a decision.

How do you define agriculture?

My definition of agriculture is everything from primary agriculture to the food on the table and all points in between. It is an incredibly large industry and yet so small at times. It is dynamic, innovative, vibrant, and exciting. The young women in AWN who comment and explore all sorts of topics in this field inspire me.

I believe that agriculture must continue to cultivate leaders (you and me) who will speak to consumers about food. We must be prepared to answer questions on biotechnology, animal welfare, protecting our environment and farmland.

If you know of a woman whom you think would be a great person to profile, please send your suggestions to Stephanie Craig via email at

Ag Hall of Fame – Where are all the Women At?


The OAC describes Laura Rose as “instrumental” in modernizing dairy. Photo source: Ontario Agricultural College

Today, the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame inducted five deserving men into their ranks. Among them, a man known as the “father of 4-H” in Canada, the late E. Ward Jones. Though 4-H started over 100 years ago as a Boys club, it quickly morphed into the Boys and Girls Clubs and today, Canadian 4-H membership boasts a slightly higher percentage of female participation over males.

Sadly, this level of equal representation is not yet the norm everywhere in agriculture and the Hall of Fame is no exception. The Mission of the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame is to “honour and celebrate Canadians for outstanding contributions to the Agriculture and Food Industry and to publicize the importance of their achievements to Canada.” Since its inception in 1960, no more than four women have been inducted:

All four have made formidable contributions to agriculture in the areas of animal breeding, journalism and home economics. One cannot help but wonder though why there aren’t more women’s portraits hanging on the gallery walls?

Just last year, the Ontario Agricultural College celebrated 140 years with a campaign called “140 Faces of OAC“. I distinctly recall many other women featured in this campaign who had made incredible and fascinating contributions to agriculture. Laura Rose, an expert “butter maker”, pioneer in modernizing dairy and the namesake for the Women’s Institute’s Rose program. Sarah Potter, who was not only an instructor but modelled over 900 fruits and vegetables from wax to be used as teaching aids (that in itself deserves recognition in my opinion).  Closer to my current home, there’s Susannah Isabella Steckle, who planted the first commercial orchard in Waterloo, after being the first female agriculture graduate from the OAC.

Where are these women among the Hall of Fame inductees?

We cannot fault the Hall of Fame alone. Their role is to select from the nominations received and nominations come from the industry. Two of the above women were nominated by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario, but the responsibility should not rest solely with them. All agricultural associations and corporations should be stepping up to recognize the women who have made notable impacts on agriculture, lest they be forgotten.

Striking a balance between farming and caregiving

This article is the first in a monthly series that will highlight members of the Ag Women’s Network. AWN is an online group dedicated to connecting and empowering women in agriculture through sharing, learning and personal development.


How one farmwoman is juggling the responsibility of caring for loved ones on the farm and off

By Courtney Denard

Ontario Farmer

CD_Deb KnaptonDeb Knapton is a dairy farmer from Eastern Ontario but like most women in agriculture she’s a lot more than that.

A loving wife and a mother of two adult children, Deb didn’t grow up on a farm but by the time she was a teenager she knew that’s exactly where she wanted to be.

Deb had always been into horses. She started riding when she was just eight years old. At 17 she made the life changing decision to stop riding competitively and take work on a neighbour’s dairy farm.

That decision would go on to change her life in ways young Deb couldn’t even imagine at the time.

“I loved working with the cows so much that it steered my decision to study agricultural business at Centralia College,” Deb says.

Deb calls her two and a half years at college “awesome.” She was involved in student council, sports, and Junior Farmers. It was the latter organization, in fact, that introduced her to her husband Merlin, a dairy farmer from St. Mary’s.

With a similar dream of becoming a farm owner, Deb and Merlin started out by renting a farm in Shakespeare and eventually bought an operation in Almonte in 1989.

“We began by milking 15 cows and shipping cream,” Deb explains. “But it wasn’t enough.”

Sadly, Deb and Merlin were left with no choice but to eventually sell the cows and quota and continue their off-farm work.

It wasn’t the happy ending they had envisioned but the couple kept the farm, a few of the livestock, and the hope that the dairy would be operational once again.

Ten years ago that hope became a reality. Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination Deb and her husband purchased new quota in 2005 and started milking 20 Holsteins.

Today, Deb divides her time between running the farm in a full partnership with Merlin, continuing to work full-time off the farm, and taking care of her family.

She is also the secretary-treasurer for the Lanark County Dairy Producers Committee and has been a dedicated volunteer with 4-H Ontario for the past 15 years.

Like so many farmwomen, a typical day for Deb is never typical.

She has no set schedule and has responsibilities coming at her from every angle. This summer when her 90-year-old father took seriously ill, her load got even bigger.

“It’s really tough,” Deb says. “Until this summer both of my parents were in good health so I had no appreciation. It takes over your whole life.”

“Not that you’re not glad to do it,” adds Deb. “It was just a real wake up call.”

Many farmwomen are facing the same struggle. As aging parents are living longer, it’s not uncommon for women to transition almost overnight from mother to parental caregiver.

Deb says seeking support from other family members and taking it one day at a time helps. Staying connected to the things she loves, like agriculture and farming, is beneficial as well.

This was one of the reasons Deb joined the online Ag Women’s Network (AWN). Coming from a family that doesn’t farm and working from home makes it challenging to reach others in the agriculture community.

“It’s nice to have people who understand where you’re coming from,” says Deb.

Joining the AWN also gave Deb the push she needed to seek a full-time position in the agriculture industry.

After working for years as an accountant and owning her own business, Deb wanted to make the move back to agriculture so when she saw a job opening with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) she went for it.

“I thought no one would hire a 49 year old woman who hadn’t been in the industry for such a long time,” Deb admits, but that wasn’t the case.

Deb has been working as an OFA member services representative since January and loves it. “It’s the best thing ever!” she says about her job and it allows her to work from home, which is a critical part of managing the juggling act she calls life.

“I don’t have all the answers but I’ve got a supportive husband and I love what I do so that’s half the battle.”

AWN Profile: Stephanie Lee Berger

Stephanie Lee BergerStephanie Lee Berger is a woman with an interesting past. Before joining Green Tractors John Deere in Nobleton, Ontario she had a unique career in film. She followed her father’s footsteps after completing her degree at Seneca College in Business and Marketing and became an armourer showing film stars how to use firearms. In both careers she has faced opportunities and challenging situations. Together these experiences have made her the woman she is today. Stephanie now lives with her boyfriend on his family’s dairy and cash-crop operation in Loretto, Ontario. If you’re interested in connecting with Stephanie after reading her profile, contact her via Twitter (@stephanieleeb) Facebook ( or through email (

To start off, please tell the Ag Women’s Network more about yourself.

I grew up in a unique and inspired household. I am the third generation of women born in Nobleton, Ontario. I have two incredible people that I am very proud to call “Mom and Dad”. My father is from the South of France – so that is where I get my love of good cheese, wine, art and fashion. I am bilingual, as a result, and am of both Canadian and French citizenship. His career was in the film and television industry, which I’ll explain more later. My mother has been totally blind since I was four years old. She’s incredible. She has taken a massive inconvenience, and turned it into an avenue to help others. She currently walks alongside her fifth Dog Guides of Canada Canine Vision Dog Guide, Lotus. Together they travel the continent spreading awareness about the importance, and gift, that a dog guide is for people with disabilities and ailments. She also has raised my younger brother (who is also legally blind) and I to be strong individuals and to be brave.

My closest friends would tell you that I take too many pictures, bring too much food to parties, bake too often and have too much mascara. But they may also tell you that I have a creative, craft-nerd soul, a big heart, go for long drives to clear my head, and love the roar of a diesel engine. And that it’s rare to find me wearing any footwear other than cowboy boots. I have nineteen pairs!Stephanie's Boot Collection

I am a dairy-woman in training, and have certainly embraced the work, the dedication and the passion. I’ve finally found where I need to be.

Before working in agriculture you had a career in film. Please tell us more about that.

My father has been a very influential player in the Canadian film and television community since 1955. He started as a horse-wrangler and cowboy for films, then became an actor and stuntman (Canada’s FIRST!), then moved on to work as a property master, special effects, and eventually foresaw the trend of the use of firearms in productions. From this our family business, “Shooting with the Stars” was born.

As an Armourer, our job was to provide safe training to actors and actresses to properly (or improperly – whatever their role may call for) use a firearm on film, and provide the equipment as required on-set.

This was my first taste of being a female in a very male-dominated workplace. My knowledge and expertise, and young age, were questioned from time to time, but I learned very quickly to take it in stride. In retrospect, I feel that being a woman made the actors feel more at ease and open to learning. It was my job to make sure they felt comfortable and of course, look natural.

I’ve been so fortunate to work with the likes of Sofia Loren, Mark Wahlberg, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Al Pacino, Danny DeVito, Jackie Chan, Diane Lane, Colin Farrell, Mickey Rourke, 50 Cent, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Love Hewitt… to name a few.

My truest honour was to work alongside my father. When Dad was in his 73rd year he had some serious health issues, and I had to make the decision for him to slow down. As long as I stayed in the business, he would too, and I wanted him to bow down gracefully and enjoy his life, since he had given us so much. This was a heartbreaking decision for me and one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make. But, just months later, he had a stroke and a seizure, so it was a blessing in disguise that I left. At 83, he is now in great health, and is enjoying retirement with Mom and the dogs.

What was the transition like between your career in the film industry to agriculture?

The transition was a challenge, I felt like I had no direction. I worked for an incentive marketing company in the city, but felt that the corporate environment wasn’t exactly what I wanted, especially after my experience in film as a freelancer. One day, on a whim, I decided to visit our local Green Tractors John Deere dealer in Nobleton. The Davis family had been friends of ours for many years and I ask if they needed anyone “to wash tractors”… That is literally what I asked. A few days later, I started at our Brampton location in sales. I will admit I had no idea what I was doing. I had always been a bit of a gearhead, but I had to prove myself, especially since I was a woman. I learned about the parts department while I was there, which was one of the most beneficial things I have ever done; I learned the equipment, inside out. I worked there, selling small stuff for about a year. Little did I know, that I was being groomed to do marketing, advertising, and sales for our (then) three stores. I moved to our head office in Nobleton, and just celebrated nine years with the company.

What do you do in your current position?

We now have seven locations all over Ontario. I do all of our market forecasting and planning, budgeting, advertising campaigns, promotions, events and clinics, sponsorships, customer experience and about a million other things. And I still sell equipment. It’s quite a task to balance, but I like the challenge.

Professionally we are often seeking success. How do you define personal success?

Personal success is finding something you love to do every day – and loving it so much that it doesn’t feel like an obligation. I feel that success comes to everyone in different ways – whether it be professional or personal. Important steps for me are: 1. Know who you are; 2. Learn what you want from life (it takes time!); 3. Find unconventional ways to get there! 4. Make time for yourself. Not your family or spouse or children – just YOU; 5. Celebrate the little hills, as much as the big mountains; 6. Constantly create new goals, whether it be mastering a new recipe, a yoga pose or the perfect solution to handling emails. And celebrate them!

What’s the biggest professional/personal challenge you’ve had to face?

The biggest professional challenge I’ve had to deal with would definitely be making the choice to leave the family business. I’ve also dealt with a lot of adversity in both of my careers since I am a woman who chose “non-traditional” roles. There were times that I would get defensive and angry or sad, or feel defeated, because I was being treated differently or questioned because I am a woman. But each time that would happen, I used that energy to learn from it. Rather than lash out and use the “girl card”, it tasted so much better to simply “prove ‘em wrong” by doing an amazing job. As time went by, in film, I created a name for myself and I went to work, did my job gracefully, and always got called back. Just like the guys did.

Stephanie Lee BergerSelling equipment, as a woman, is a different story altogether; that would take days to summarize, but I will say this: There are some people that question my knowledge, because I am a woman, not because I am me. But once they feel my firm handshake and let me help them find solutions – those misconceptions tend to melt away. A talented, good person is a talented, good person… regardless of their gender.

Who is your biggest influencer/mentor?

My mother, Beverley, and my grandmother, Lillian. Before she lost her sight, Mom sold vehicles for the Ford Motor Company. In the 1970’s, it was rare to see a female salesperson at a dealership. She faced a lot more judgment than I ever will, and she always approached it with grace and a smile. I also admire my Mom for raising two kids that she could not see. She likes to say that we “challenged” her. I take that as a compliment, because we gave her the drive to get up and to move past her disability and carry on with life.

My Grandmother sold industrial steel in the 1960’s through the 1980’s, which I can imagine being nothing short of a challenge. She worked hard, kept great business relationships, and was efficient and organized. She retired as a well-respected and successful lady. When I feel frustrated by that guy who said, “Oh, you can’t know anything about tractors…”, I remind myself of what Mom and Gram had to plow through to pave the way for us all today, and I smile, and respond with “How can I help?”.

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

I am at the point in my life that I will soon be ready to think about starting a family and I often ask myself how I plan to deal with that. Will I continue on or will I be on the farm full-time to raise a family? It’s a huge decision.

How do you define agriculture?

Agriculture is the art, science and business of tending to the earth, cultivating crops and raising livestock, for food and other products. I also define it as a labour of love and a series of constant, ever-changing experiments.

Why are you interested in being a part of the Ag Women’s Network (AWN)?

I enjoy the idea of being in a group of women who are tied to agriculture in so many different ways. We all have a story to tell, and so much experience and knowledge to share. It is very empowering to see lenders, reps from seed companies, writers, a lawyer, mill marketers, livestock association staff, researchers, communicators, Nuffield Scholars, primary producers, vets, an architect, equipment marketing managers, salespeople, retired schoolteachers and Aggie students alike, all in one room – coming together thanks to one common thread: agriculture. I like that when I leave an “AWN” meeting, I feel energized, and my brain is rolling for days with ideas and inspiration. I am happy to MAKE time for these events.

If you know of a woman whom you think would be a great person to profile, please send your suggestions to Stephanie Craig via email (

Celebrating Ontario Agriculture Week

Mary Ann is a co-owner/operator of her family's dairy farm.

Mary Ann is a co-owner/operator of her family’s dairy farm.

What a great time of year to celebrate Ontario Agriculture. Many people may be unaware that October 5-11, 2015 is Ontario Agriculture Week but I can guarantee that they are celebrating in their day-to-day lives. Grocery stores are full of local Ontario produce, drive through the country and you can see the crops being harvested, and local fall fairs are in full-swing celebrating all that agriculture has to offer.

Fall is my favourite time of year. Working the fields at harvest time brings a deep sense of contentment with a job well done.

At our farm today, a custom operator is combining soybeans. He doesn’t need our help this year as a retired transport driver is working for free because he misses working the harvest. With our new-found free time, we are busy putting away field equipment for the winter. Across the road I can hear the hum of a combine taking off a neighbour’s grain corn. For lunch we enjoyed local vegetables from our latest grocery trip where we always look for Ontario products. And our families are exchanging emails planning meals and pumpkin carving for Thanksgiving. I can smell harvest in the air.

Fall is also a time for reflection as we see the finished product after worrying about the crops all summer. The new hay field that was once bare on the hill, scorched from sun and drought, is now thriving after growing under its cover crop of oats. And the corn that was hit by drought, frost and torrential rain, all in a short period of time this spring, was taller than the tractor at harvest. My dad’s soybeans came in first place at his local fair, but the less we say about the barley field the better; at least it’s off the field and we don’t have to look at it anymore. Optimism and hope for the future is necessary in this world, and I am filled with both when I think about the direction Ontario Agriculture is going.

I encourage you to take a moment to reflect while you are out in the fields, or give a farmer a big wave and a thumbs up when you drive by. It’s time to celebrate.

– Mary Anne Doré