Big dreams in Biggar
Kids play in the background, colleagues gather for a day full of Zoom calls, phone notifications ping from a customer and a mug full of coffee in hand – this is a small snippet of a day in the life of Chantelle Donahue and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Donahue thrives on a busy schedule and relentlessly strives for continuous improvement in her family farm and the overall agricultural industry.
Farming roots run deep
Her work ethic and drive could be attributed to her farming roots and athletic career. Throughout high school and university, she competed in a range of track and field events including the heptathlon, which consists of seven competitions such as high jump, shot put and an 800-metre run.
Following her successful track career in Saskatchewan, she completed a business co-op program at the University of Alberta. She carried her competitive and ambitious spirit with her long after graduation.
Donahue, alongside her husband Greg and their two young daughters Abby and Sally, runs a grain and oilseed farm in Biggar, Sask. She is also a vice-president and commercial leader at Cargill Ltd. This company serves customers and communities in 70 countries working to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.
However, despite being raised on a grain farm in Saskatchewan, she had no intentions of building a career in the agri-food industry.
“I was raised on a farm but didn’t want anything to do with the farm at the time. I grew up in the 80s, which was a tough time for many grain farmers in the Prairies,” Donahue recalls.
Despite her steadfast decision to venture outside of the agricultural industry, Donahue returned to her farming roots. And what a revelation it was for her!
“You can take the girl out of the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the girl. That’s really what happened and I’m glad it did,” Donahue smiles.
“It’s a really good space to be in and it’s pretty cool to be able to feed people!”
Beyond the family farm and her executive role, Donahue has contributed her time and expertise to a wide range of ag boards and groups. For example, she has served as a board member for Farm Products Council of Canada, a co‐chair of the Grains and Oilseeds Roundtable, a co‐chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, and an advisor for an Advancing Women in Agriculture Project, just to name a few. All of these organizations work to progress innovation, sustainability and growth in Canada’s agricultural industry.
Indeed, Donahue is deeply passionate about food, farming and public trust, so she dedicates a lot of time to raise awareness about farming and food production. As a result of all her work and dedication, Donahue was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2019 and currently serves as the chair of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI). CAPI is a non-profit corporation that enables agri-food leaders to come together, share insights and advance ideas on emerging issues.
Transparency on the farm
“People care about their food and what they eat. I think they always have, but what has changed is the role of social media” in disseminating information, she says.
Technological advancements are a reality in every sector, but some people are wary of technology in food production, even if science shows that new approaches are safe and contribute to environmental sustainability.
Farmers must share their stories and exemplify the pride they take in growing quality and nutritious food.
“Home is where we produce food and feed. We need to be transparent about what we grow and how we do it,” Donahue says.
“My personal check is asking myself: am I comfortable with my daughters walking into the field? That was one of the biggest turning points in our lives.”
Farmers live where they work, so they must be diligent and attentive to ensure that their farming practices are safe for family members, staff and neighbours. As a result, Donahue takes great care in responsibly growing crops, including the judicious use of crop protection products such as pesticides.
“My agenda now is to contribute to a safe and healthy Canadian food value chain where all can thrive and have access to food,” Donahue says.
“We are stronger together. So, if agricultural stakeholders have a strong understanding of the value chain and contribute to improving efficiencies, those outcomes will provide benefits for us locally and serves Canada globally.”
To achieve these outcomes, collaboration is key among industry members from farmgate to dinner plate. Fortunately, Donahue brings impressive experience to the table to facilitate cooperation and ensure a steady food supply. She brings lenses from global trade, food innovations and farming perspectives. Not to mention that she also feeds her own family of four.
Safe and plentiful food for all
While everyone has different beliefs and backgrounds, one common thread that most people share is the need to feed their families.
“If we think about the food system, what do we all want? Everyone wants healthy and affordable food for their family. We’re not all that different,” she says.
Throughout her careers as an elite athlete, mother, company executive and farmer, Donahue has always stayed true to herself and her values.
“Every decision that I make, I have to be able to walk up and down the street with my family, see our neighbours and know that I’ve made the right decisions” in her farm and off-farm jobs, Donahue says.
“Own your decisions.”
Importance of diversity, equity and inclusion
At Cargill, “the most invigorating part of my day now is developing new talent,” she says.
“I’m so excited about the passion of others and help expose their talent. New people are entering the ag industry all the time from all walks of life.” Companies that attract talent from outside the pool of agricultural degree holders offer the industry new and influential perspectives.
While the ag industry has a ways to go in achieving Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) inclusion and equality, individuals such as Donahue, work to make a positive difference in their workplace.
“Cargill has taken initiative in the diversity and inclusion space. We have been on this journey for a long time and recent events continue to elevate those efforts,” she says.
“To keep the agri-food system healthy, competitive and affordable, we need to make sure we have a phenomenal pipeline of good talent and people who want to do the right thing in this space.”
Overall, those who are passionate and leverage their networks will thrive in any industry.
“It’s difficult to know exactly what you want to do, but if you can find something that aligns with your behaviour and values and you’re passionate about it, you are creating a strong recipe for success,” Donahue says.
Passion and genuinely loving your job “carries you when things get difficult and you’re growing professionally and as a person”
And a solid support network is huge.
“Ten years ago when I was sitting on boards, I usually was the only female at the table and years younger than other members. But those aspects didn’t worry me because I created a network of senior females who I looked up to for advice,” Donahue explains.