NAPANEE - It may well be an understatement to say the future looks bright for Kevin MacLean.
The 27-year-old dairy farmer from Napanee is about to add a new set of duties to an already busy life after being accepted to the highly acclaimed Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP).
"I've always been a leader in my community," says MacLean, who, from an early age has worked alongside his parents on the family farm and is now in partnership with them.
MacLean passes a lot of the credit over to his parents for the advancements he's been able to make in his own life. "I'm very fortunate to have a mother and father who are quite progressive," he says. "They're willing to listen to me and I'm willing to listen to them. The things I've done wrong on the farm, it's because I haven't asked for my father's opinion."
When the subject of the AALP came up, and it has more than once in the past several years, MacLean looked to his father's public and private endeavours for some guidance.
"My dad is a leader in life," he says, adding that the elder MacLean just became a regional director with the Dairy Farmers of Ontario. "He always did things at a local level, now it's more at a regional and provincial level."
For the younger MacLean, a graduate of the Animal Science Program at the University of Guelph, entrance into the AALP seemed to be a logical next step.
Anne Gordon is executive director of the program, which began in 1984 as a partnership between the University of Guelph, the Ontario Federation of the Agriculture, the Foundation for Rural Living and OMAFRA.
Gordon says MacLean is seen as a "potential star" of the future, and is an excellent example of why the program was launched in the first place. Calling it a "collaborative brainchild" of all the partners, she says there was a need to pluck the best and the brightest people working in the agricultural and agri-food industries across the province and provide them with the skills to become future leaders.
"It's developing leaders that can see beyond their own backyard," Gordon explains. "They have a good sense of what's happening in the province and in their community while also having an eye on the world.
"The program works to make them the best leaders they can be; it encourages people to strive."
Gordon says recruiting for the 19-month program is done by sifting through a number of agencies and organizations, including the Wheat board, the Chicken and Pork Marketing Boards, 4-H and Guelph graduates. Since 1984, she says, more than 200 people have graduated from the program and have gone on to fill positions like Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, senior manager of agriculture at the Bank of Montreal and purchasing manager at Campbell's Soup. Says Gordon, "Our graduates make a difference in agricultural organizations and rural communities across the province."
In searching for students, Gordon says a number of factors are considered. "Potential for leadership after the program," is one of four categories looked at when students are being assessed. "In other words," says Gordon, "what are they going to give back?"
Gordon lists the other three headings as: "demonstrated leadership to that point," "open-mindedness - how open are they to do new things," and "vision - vision for the agricultural future." She says the program also looks at the "connections" students have to agriculture and food industries and to the rural community in general.
"They have to have a breadth of understanding about rural Ontario," Gordon continues. "They have to be thought of well in their community. Another question is, do they have a thriving agricultural business?'"
Gordon says the final decision on acceptance isn't based on "one single thing," but is a "combination" of the person's performance in all categories.
Over the 19 months, students will participate in nine three-day seminars held in different parts of Ontario. Each session, says Gordon, explores various themes such as leadership, communication, decision making and the dynamics of change. The balance of time is spent on two "study travels," one abroad and one to a "Canada-US destination." For the latter, Gordon says the relationship between the two countries is studied, along with trade, governments and the agricultural and food environment as a whole.
Gordon says for good reason the international destination, planned for February of 2001, has not yet been determined. She says the program's board of directors will make a decision closer to the date. "It will be somewhere where there are a lot of issues around agriculture or world trade at that time." Class number seven, the latest to go this past March, travelled through Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria. One of the main topics, says Gordon, revolved around the prospect of these countries becoming members of the European Union. Of the students involved in this process, Gordon suggests "we're pushing their boundaries of leadership to be a part of that international scene."
Although tuition for the AALP, with its two rather large-scale study tours, can be costly, Gordon says the bill is shared among the different participants. The program itself raises 36 per cent of the budget through fundraising; one quarter comes from the student and the rest is supplied by the partners involved. "It's a great equation," she says. "There's individual commitment and then there are the people in the public sector with their commitment."
Gordon says AALP students pick up skills both in the classroom and in the field. For example, each will have a chance to co-chair one of the seminars and on the overseas trip, will learn how to "introduce an ambassador" of one of the countries involved, among other tasks. The idea, she says, is to make them comfortable in every possible situation, be it on the international scene politically or in a gathering in their own community.
Over the years the profile of graduates has undergone a change. Gordon says in the beginning years, "age was an issue" and younger people tended to be the norm. Last year, however, following a "major review," Gordon says the emphasis was taken off age. "While often people are between the ages of 23 and 45 that's not to say we don't accept people younger or older."
The ratio of men versus women has also changed. Gordon, herself a graduate of the program, recalls when the classes were in their infancy and she was one of only five women. Pointing out that in the current class "one third" are women, Gordon says women, nonetheless, still find themselves in a different situation than their male counterparts.
"With women they are either doing it (the program) in the early stages of their career or later. It has a lot to do with raising a family.
"Who's to say if you've raised a family all you're life you're not in a better position than you ever were to make a difference."
For MacLean, timing was also a factor in making the decision to go ahead with AALP. Three years ago, he says, it didn't seem like the right thing to do, but "right now, the time is right."
MacLean says he spent the past few years picking up other skills before coming back to work full time on the farm. Taking to heart the advice "a smart person" once gave him about working "off the farm," MacLean did just that. He worked as a "feeding advisor" for two farm supply companies, a position which, he says, made him a "more knowledgeable person" as it took him around to different dairy, beef and horse operations.
After saving some money from the work experience, MacLean says the family collectively decided the wisest investment opportunity for him was in "cows and quota." He then became a partner in the operation and is still able to do part-time work with one of the feed companies, O'Neill's Farm Supply in Napanee.
MacLean says he views the program, which starts with an initial meeting Sept. 27, as a way of improving himself in a number of areas.
"I attribute a lot of my skills to 4-H ... I'd like to expand on those skills, refine them," he says. "How do you become an effective leader? Effective listening is another area I'd like to work on ... how to really learn from the person I'm listening to."
MacLean's first real contact with the program comes at a busy time. He just won the Ontario Holstein Association's Dairy Youth Award for Central Ontario and, as part of that, is off to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, also at month end.
Even with much national and international exposure in agriculture promised over the next few months, MacLean says his long-term plans involve staying close to home.
"My goal is to transfer the family farm. It takes a lot to do that. That's my push right now."