By Leeann Minogue
When Chantelle and Greg Donahue are making decisions on their grain farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan, there’s an image they keep in their heads. They remember the warm summer day they watched their daughter playing in one of their pea crops. Knowing that their two girls, Abby (6), and Sally (2), will be running through their fields gives Chantelle and Greg an extra incentive to make sure they’re careful with crop protection products and growing wheat, barley, canola, peas, and various other crops responsibly.
Farming for the Long Haul
The Donahues are farming for the long haul. Most Canadian farmers build their family farms so they can pass them on to their children. Chantelle and Greg are thinking about what their farm will be like when it reaches their grandchildren. This keeps them focused on soil health. They make sure each seed is placed in exactly the right place, and they only use crop protection products when it’s absolutely necessary. “We think of the crops in our fields like plants in a garden,” Chantelle says. “We do everything we can and continue to innovate so the plants can do the work to protect themselves.”
All Canadian farmers know that the food they grow eventually winds up on consumers’ plates, but Chantelle Donahue has had a first-hand look at the country’s food chain. As well as being a farmer, Chantelle is a vice president and commercial leader for Cargill. She’s spent more than 18 years working for Cargill in areas of the food industry ranging from sustainability in beef production to producing malt from barley to make beer. Her jobs have been based in Vancouver, Biggar and Winnipeg. Now she’s working even farther afield, with an office based in Minneapolis, Cargill’s global head office.
Family and Work Balance
When a wife, farmer, and mom of two young girls has an office 1,500 kilometers from the farm and needs to attend meetings across the country and around the world, a lot of creative solutions and sacrifices are required to make everything work.
When Chantelle’s first daughter was three months old, Abby was already on a plane to Winnipeg to meet her new nanny. “When there was just one baby,” Chantelle says, “it was easier to take her with me. Having the second child made me see things through a different lens.” Prioritizing and scheduling have become vitally important, and so has the need to balance work and family. “You need the right partners to do this,” Chantelle says. Without strong support from her husband Greg, farming and working so far from the farm would be difficult, or maybe impossible.
For the Donahues, the silver lining of COVID-19 has been having Chantelle at home most of the time. Despite endless online meetings and relentless phone calls, she’s managed to build time into her schedule to online school her older daughter. But while COVID-19 has slowed down her travel schedule, working from home hasn’t been easy. “We’re all dealing with stresses that we’ve never dealt with before,” she says. “Emotional health and awareness has been really important this year.”
Passionate about Food Production
Chantelle believes that one reason Greg is so willing to support her off-farm work is that they’re both so passionate about food production. Chantelle’s work gives the Donahues a direct line of sight into how farmers and the rest of the agriculture industry work together to produce food. When Chantelle is taking part in industry discussions about the regulations and policies that guide our food supply, she can bring the hands-on realities of farming into the conversation. “Everything I do at work, I own when I walk down the streets of Biggar,” Chantelle says.
Chantelle’s career has given her an opportunity to work with players in many parts of Canada’s food industry, and she’s loved all of it. Canada is a large country, but our food industry is still a small sector where people get to know each other and build strong relationships over time. “This group is very cohesive,” she says. “There’s a lot of collaboration and coordination.” Chantelle’s contribution to this culture is the time she spends volunteering on industry committees and boards ranging from the Canada Grains Council to the Advancing Women in Agriculture Project. In 2019, her work in the sector was formally recognized when she was inducted into Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Hall of Fame.
So far, Chantelle says, her most important work has been the efforts she’s made to build public trust in our food system. As a representative of Cargill, Chantelle was involved in advancing the initial efforts on beef sustainability, working with ranchers, buyers, and consumers to ensure beef is not only produced sustainably, but that customers can trust that beef is produced responsibly. Chantelle learned quickly that there are two ways to go about this kind of work. “You can work fast and promote your own agenda, or you can bring everyone together to find a common agenda.” The second option takes a lot longer but it’s the best way to build trust and accountability. Chantelle’s journey in this area took over a decade, and she’s still working to make sure Canadians can trust the food industry, and that food producers are accountable to consumers. “I believe in what the Canadian food industry can deliver, and what Canada can deliver to the world,” Chantelle says.