No Grain, No Gain

Barry Senft’s thirty-five years of hard work in agriculture has paid off, allowing him to go from helping on the family farm to leading the Grain Farmers of Ontario

Pulsing through the veins of the Senft family is the art of agriculture. Born in the town of Balcarres, Saskatchewan, and raised on his family’s grain farm in Lipton, Saskatchewan—which today spans five thousand acres—Barry Senft grew up and became a third-generation farmer. He inherited his skills in farming from both sets of grandparents, who emigrated from Germany in pursuit of freedom and opportunity—each settling in the prairies with one hundred acres of land. Senft recalls that he always had a keen interest in farming, and began assisting either his grandfather or father on the farm, riding along in the tractor since the age of ten. During those years, while Senft’s father worked out in the fields, he completed chores all throughout the farmland.

Farm Politics

Fast forward to 1974, when eighteen-year-old Senft graduated high school and debated whether he should immediately dedicate his life to farming or join the business workforce to gain experience. But after an employee suddenly quit, Senft’s father unexpectedly had a position on the farm to fill. Senft decided then to work full-time on the family farm, kick-starting his thirty-five-year career in the agricultural industry in earnest.

Yet riding tractors and milking cows isn’t all that farmers have on their agenda. “Farm politics,” Senft says, “is where I first cut my teeth.”

In 1980, Senft was elected as a delegate to the cooperative grain organization that was then known as Saskatchewan Wheat Pool—a company with a revenue of $5 billion, which was located in Regina, Saskatchewan. Four years later, Senft—its youngest member—was appointed to the board of directors.

“I was on the board for thirteen years, and when I left, I was still the youngest,” he says.

Senft kept climbing the career ladder—in 1988, he was promoted to an executive position, and in 1993 was elected as one of two vice presidents of the co-op. After spending four years in his vice presidency, Senft began contemplating whether to stay with the company or look elsewhere within the grain industry.

He found a new opportunity in the appointment of a chief commissioner in the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), which establishes and maintains the standards of quality for Canadian grain and regulates all the grain handling systems in Canada. The opportunity seemed too good to pass up, so he went for it. He was offered the position and relocated his wife Carolee and two children, Carter and Lyndsey, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with him.

The move was a smart one, as the executive’s career has only blossomed. Senft’s career was recognized in 1997 in Maclean’s, Canada’s national weekly, featuring him in its list of Canadians under the age of forty to watch.

Sowing the Seeds

Following his appointment at CGC, Senft moved on to become the executive director of the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI), also located in Winnipeg. This was his first foray with a nonprofit organization. CIGI has numerous facilities—including a noodle and Asian products facility, a pilot and test bakery, and a pilot pasta plant—where domestic and international customers come to see how Canadian grains are processed into a product. Through his work with CIGI, Senft’s assignment was to promote Ontario grains for the domestic and international customers of Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board and the Ontario Soybean Board Association. In the seven years that Senft held this role, he witnessed the discussions of three commodity nonprofit organizations that had the potential of merging: Ontario Corn Producers’ Association, Ontario Soybean Growers, and the Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board.

“In its early days, I watched the process taking place from afar and thought that would be an interesting challenge for me if that merger did take place,” Senft says.

The discussion to merge began in 2004 during the organizations’ annual meetings. There was an overwhelming desire to become a single entity representing the interests of the Ontario farmers who grew grains and oilseeds. In order to gather their fellow farmers’ opinions, the organizations worked with Ontario’s Farm Products Marketing Commission, which conducted a vote in September 2008 among the corn, soybean, and wheat growers. In December 2008, the results from the mail-ballot vote were announced by the Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, stating a 72 percent majority vote to form today’s Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO).

“It was an exciting time for the Ontario grain industry, and I had a keen interest in being a part of it,” Senft says. “The new organization needed a CEO and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Did you Know?

According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the agriculture industry contributes more than $100 billion annually to Canada’s gross domestic product.

A Growing, Developing Strategy

Since July 2009, Senft has been CEO, and his first assignment was ensuring that GFO had the right people in the right roles. Because of their seniority, former employees from the three legacy organizations were given the first opportunity to apply for new positions. Senft’s most crucial contribution to the merger was a new culture for Grain Farmers of Ontario. Unlike the singularity of the three independent organizations, GFO’s culture has an emphasis on various aspects of the industry and possesses the resources to solve a broad range of issues.

Now, Senft’s CEO position has evolved into ensuring that the proper resources are in place from a budget and staff perspective and overseeing that the employees are executing the strategic plan the board of directors has in place.

GFO’s headquarters is based in Guelph, Ontario, with thirty employees. It represents Ontario’s twenty-eight thousand growers of five different commodities: barley, corn, oats, soybeans, and wheat. It emphasizes four pillars: wheat market and marketing development, communication to farmers and consumers, government advocacy to the provincial and federal government of Canada, and research and innovation.

The wheat market and marketing development promotes the annual Ontario Wheat Quality Scoop and ensures that GFO’s current customers are happy and up-to-date on the quality of Ontario wheat post-harvest. The data contained in the report is essential to processors before they receive the grain, so they can adjust their processing according to the condition of the grain coming in.

The company realizes that communication with customers of all grain markets is crucial to its success. Grain Farmers of Ontario reaches out to farmers, and communicates any issues pertaining to the production of grains or new  technology advancements—and how this may affect member farms and their farming techniques.

Within the last five years, GFO has also turned its attention to public outreach through a number of initiatives, one of which is a 15.6-metre mobile-trailer exhibit, which visits trade and summer shows to demonstrate modern farming practices and discuss the safety of the food that is grown in Ontario.

“Nowadays, people are becoming more removed from their food supply and sometimes there are questions about how safe the food is,” says Senft. “At one point, your parents or grandparents might have had a farm, or you knew somebody, and you had that relationship. Today, that’s different.”

GFO’s exhibition trailer can be seen at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, the Canada Day celebration of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and numerous other large events across the province.

Mastering the Maize

GFO is forward-thinking in all areas. In summer 2015, the company created a grain analytical lab in Guelph, near its headquarters, as part of its drive for innovative research. This way, the product, resources, and data will be Ontario-based. Previously, the harvested grains were tested for quality in a lab located about two thousand kilometres away in Winnipeg, and this new facility helps the company avoid shuttling back and forth. From Senft’s previous work at CIGI and CGC, he was able to create a fifty-fifty partnership with his contacts at SGS Canada, an international inspection, verification, testing, and certification company that will house the lab. The lab cost over $600,000 in capital investment for equipment and $500,000 for buildings and employees.

Today, despite holding a full-time CEO position, the sixty-year-old Senft is still an active farmer and keeps involved on other levels as well. “We are fortunate to have Barry sit as a member of Monsanto Canada’s Grower Advisory Council, representing the GFO and the interests of Ontario farmers.  He is a strategic thinker and strong advocate for science, technology and innovation – a focus also shared by Monsanto.  We appreciate Barry’s insight and constructive feedback on our business and very much value our strong and collaborative working relationship, as well as his efforts to strengthen and grow Canadian agriculture” says Trish Jordan, Vice-President of Monsanto Canada’s Grower Advisory Council.

Sneft is still feeding his continued interest in grain production. On his farm in Lipton, Senft has a partnership with his younger brother, Corey, who has an additional twenty-five hundred acres of grazing land. Working alongside them for the last five years is Senft’s twenty-six-year-old son Carter. “Continued direct involvement in farming very much helps with my current role as CEO of a farm organization. It’s not often you have the opportunity to do both.”