Monday, September 29, 2014

Farmgirl Goes to the Big City

He kicked off the lecture, asking who had travelled the furthest.

In a theatre of 200-or-so eager professionals, a few shouts from the crowd revealed my challenging trip from SW Ontario paled by comparison; Vancouver, Newfoundland, California, Amsterdam, Brazil, Columbia! The Academy-award winning screenwriter truly drew a global crowd for his "Story In Business" seminar. 

"NO student of mine uses the word 'journey' to describe life," he continued. "A journey is when you get on the bus in Akron, Ohio & travel to Indianapolis. Life is not a journey. It's full of challenges." 

Well, okay then. With that, I shut my iPad and pulled out my notebook. This was going to be a good day.

The thing with journeys though, is they can also be challenging, even for a seasoned traveler like me. Nevermind the cancelled flight and last minute changes, a trip to the 'big city' always unnerves me a little; at least until my psyche can re-calibrate to the hustle and bustle. With every step I imagine every eye on me, wondering if they know how uncomfortable I am at that very moment. 

It also always seems the insignificant decisions I fretted so much over, I inevitably chose wrong.  This particular morning, as I dragged my roller-bag up Lexington Avenue from the subway station, I was cursing my decision to wear heels and wondering if my sweater was also going to be a burden on the warm, fall day. I broke my heel before I had even left the airport, so at my first opportunity I changed back into my cowboy boots. "Of course, flats were the obvious choice." I thought to myself gazing at every pair of feet around me. Of course, no one was paying any attention to me. I was just another bee in the hive going about my day like 8 million other people in New York. 

By noon, the desire to have "NY for Dummies" on immediate standby had faded away, and I was excited to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, admiring the people and life of the Upper East Side. I grabbed a sandwich at a small deli, and couldn't help but think of Red's grocery in Orange is the New Black. I was quite certain this deli was a family business, and the full tables of suits, construction workers and students told me I'd be happy with my selection. 

Unwrapping the sandwich, I thought about whether I'd ever walked into a similar place in Toronto. Or anywhere in Canada for that matter. There wasn't a familiar restaurant sign to be seen in the 10 blocks I'd walked from Hunter College, so void of other options I'd chosen this deli. It's not incredibly profound, but I realized that's what being out of your comfort zone is all about. Trying new things because there is no other option. As the afternoon concluded, I'd force myself to step outside that 'safe zone' at least once more, not knowing the result could be the start of an incredible opportunity. Proof that nothing worth pursuing comes without some risk, even if the peril is only feeling like a farmgirl in the city. 

Robert McKee on-stage, ready to begin his Story in Business lecture.

Farm fashion meets high fashion on Madison Avenue, NYC.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Our 6th Generation Family Farm; Poised for Growth & an Exciting Future

Trevor, Helen, Jim, Mike, Jenn, Jen, and Marie Christie - 6th Generation family farm
Our family - the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th generations to farm on the original homestead, settled around 1855.
This past year, my family embarked on a major milestone in the 155+ year history of Christhill Farms; we built a brand-new dairy barn, complete with robotic milking technology and a composting pack bed for the cows. (For a full account of the robot start-up, search #countdowntorobot on Twitter) This past week, we opened our doors to those who wanted to see the progress since the July 2 move-in. A special thank you goes out to the team at Avonbank Ag Solutions for their excellent efforts coordinating the open house; not a detail was missed! 

It has been exciting to follow the entire process from planning to construction to start-up, but for me (and likely our entire family) the real excitement has been seeing my parents reaction now.

When you meet my father, you know I come by my social nature honestly. We joke that he likes to talk, and he has never been able to give a full tour to a curious visitor in less than an hour. Even in the old tie-stall barn, whether they were interested in cows or not, he would ensure they knew who every cow was, her mother, grandmother and how many daughters she had in the heifer barn. For all the jokes we make, my dad has earned this verbal license. When my parents purchased the 200-acre century farm from my grandparents in 1980, they milked about 25 beef and grade Holstein cows in the original bank barn with a "Wondersteel" Quonset addition. His focus on genetics and balanced breeding, and I'm sure he would credit some good friends in the cow business, are why we enjoy working with a purebred Holstein herd today, over 3/4 of which are classified Excellent or Very Good cows.

My parents worked tirelessly when we were growing up, and often, we were right there alongside. I don't recall my mother, a seamstress who can boast the Stratford Festival on her resume, ever complaining. Growing up on a dairy farm herself, the daughter of Dutch emigrants, she knew what hard work was and she shared my father's dream of building a good herd of cows and a farm for future generations. 

They instilled this work ethic in us from a young age. Chores were always priority before friends' houses and during harvest, all other plans became tentative. Unloading hay and straw, my job was to push the bales down to my mom's reach on the wagon. When we were done, hot, sweating and hay stuck to every exposed part of our body, we’d be off the wagon, guzzling ice cold water from a blue Coleman cooler jug, before the clanging elevator chain had even come to stop. You could taste the minerals on your tongue as if the water was being slurped right off the limestone rock that cropped up in our fields every spring. Then we’d race down to the pool, throw off our clothes and jump into the water, enjoying the refreshing break before the next load was pulled into the lane and we’d have to shimmy our jeans and work shirt back over our bathing suits. The bits of hay on the water’s surface were excused and the air always smelled of sweet alfalfa. 

We rarely went on vacations, but once in a while we got away, though we almost never stayed in a hotel. I have fond memories of trips to Marineland, African Lion Safari, Alberta and Ontario's north. There was certainly never a trip to Disneyworld but I don't feel we ever missed out. Living in Bruce County, there was ample snow and snowmobiling afforded us an afternoon together as a family where we could be home by 5pm. My friends envied this, and as I got older, I realized that I wouldn't trade their brand-name clothing for the lifestyle my parents had worked hard to provide us for anything. 

After 34 years, pouring literally everything they had into the farm, my parents finally are able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour somewhat. "I never imagined we'd be milking cows with a robot," my mom said the week we moved the cows into the new barn. A few hours later, after finishing dinner she sat down in the chair in the kitchen and smiled. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen her sit down after dinner. There was no rush to clean up dinner. No cows waiting to be milked. They were already being milked. 

For my brothers, the next 30 years will bring a different kind of hard work. They'll hopefully get to more of their kids' soccer games and won't have small square bales to unload, and there will be new memories created feeding calves and riding in the tractor cab. There will also be new pressures with increased economic uncertainty and high operating costs, and they will make mistakes and learn just as my parents did. Hopefully though, the investment made today in new facilities and technologies will position them better to weather future storms and allow them to continue the legacy started by William Davis in 1855.

Arran Township Davis Family Farm
The Davis homestead - circa 1970. My Grandma, dad, brothers & I grew up in this house & milked cows in the barn.
Clearing land for the new barn - October 2013.
Foundations poured and buried under heavy snow - winter 2013.
John Ernewein Ltd dairy compost pack barn
Framed and the roof trusses going up - February 2014.
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot arriving from Avonbank Ag Solutions
The robot has arrived - June 2014 
John Ernewein Ltd compost dairy barn
Nearly complete and ready for move-in - June 2014
Compost pack dairy barn with Sun North fans
Cows getting familiar with the new barn - June 30, 2014
Milk cows tie stall
My mom milking for the last time in the original tie barn. 
Lely A4 Astronaut Robot
Getting milked for the first time in the new barn - July 2, 2014
Holstein cows eating
Feeding time! 
John Deere 2130 cultivating compost pack
My dad cultivating the composting pack. 
Happy Canadian dairy cows compost pack
Happy cows in their new home! July 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Passion Where You Least Expect It

Passion is a powerful thing. Raw, unabridged passion that is so real and unmistakable, you become transfixed within it and only realize later you have been transformed.

I experienced this tonight. In a dinner conversation with a man nearly, if not totally, considered a legend among my industry circle, I was drawn into a conversation about a subject I know very little about and ordinarily pay minimal attention; paintings. While art, in a general sense, has been a topic of interest as of late, in its most physical form, I have certainly not spent much time pondering. Yet, amid a room of one hundred agri-marketers, where I could have a very fulfilling conversation with nearly anyone on any number of subjects pertaining to agriculture, food or farming, I was captivated by a conversation about paintings.

Though it is true, James is about as good a chap as you can find (and chap is fitting, seeing as he is English), his uncanny ability to grab my attention was by and large due to the passion he has for his collection and the sport of doing so. It was totally spellbinding, and I not only learned a little but I was utterly inspired. I left there thinking more about the conversation about paintings, then the entire meeting. Which is both unfortunate, but not. I am inspired by not only his love for collecting but the passion by which he recounted story after story, like they were great conquests. Of which, some absolutely were and the odd, inappropriate joke, which only a semi-retired Englishman can get away with, never hurts either.

Seriously though, it made me wonder; if I could be so spellbound by a conversation about a subject I ordinarily pay no attention, is that not really what passion is? Do we throw the "P" word around so much today it has almost lost its meaning entirely for most of us? We are all passionate about something or other, but are we really? And if it is true passion, do you convey it so it captivates the world? Especially if you don't have a clever-sounding accent?

It's honest and pure, ever-more fleeting passion that creates impact. It invites followers, evokes action, and literally changes the world. Or in this case, saves my Grandma's antique paintings from the township dump.

L.A.C. Panton painting Photo Credit:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything I Know I Learned From a Farm Show

Okay, that might be a stretch, but if there is ever a time when Murphy’s Law prevails, it seems to be during a farm show (or likely any trade show for that matter; recreational, home or farm show, they all seem to unfold in similar fashion).

With 5 solid years of farm show organization, set-up and tear-down under my belt, I transitioned into my current role at John Deere where still farm shows roll around twice a year. Undeniably, I enjoy these shows for the same reason I think farmers do, the social aspect. (I have been quoted more than once saying, "I LOVE the farm show!") In some ways, I also believe those 5 years on the ‘show circuit’ were character building; a right of passage even. 

When you’re the first one there in the morning, hauling in cases of water and bags of ice and the last one there in the evening, locking doors and picking up empty water bottles (why is the cup holder always the most inviting spot for trash when there is a can steps away?), you can’t help but earn some stripes. Though I sometimes questioned the value and wondered if anyone noticed these little details, I realize the importance of that role now. Even if I still tend to be the first to arrive and last to leave.

So, after pounding stakes for an afternoon, making last minute calls to track down a tractor, and testing my techy skills, here’s some quick reflection on what I’ve learned over the years; be it "at the show" or any other aspect of life, they seem to apply. 

1) Be prepared - Having the right tools literally means in this case, having the right physical tools in your toolbox. It seems there is always a need for a staple gun, a drill, an Allan key, zip ties or a Sharpie. Do you have the tools, are they organized so you can find them and be ready when you need them? And after 8 years, I’ve accepted my tool box will never have everything I need… I’m always learning and adding to it.  

2) You can never be too prepared - There will always be something last-last minute, so the more prepared you can be and the earlier, the better. It is never too soon to start planning, prepping, organizing, etc. The 24 hours before the show starts are never long enough.

3) Focus on what you can control - Farm shows are a team effort, and inevitably this means relying on others to get the work done. Delegation is good; you can’t do it all but it means you risk it not getting done the way you expect. You can try to prevent this by setting some expectations, but know it doesn’t always go as smooth as you’d hoped (or you maybe could’ve done), but getting frustrated or upset never solves the situation. Control your reaction and focus on what’s next. Things that can go wrong will so…

4) Don’t sweat the small stuff - People won’t notice if a product sign is missing, whether you forgot to book the carper or if a tractor just doesn’t show up. Sometimes things get missed or you just plain forget or run out of time. It’s never a big deal and likely, no one will ever notice except you.

5) Debrief, debrief, debrief - How many times have we ordered the same show furnishings at the last minute? Realized the day of set-up we’re missing flags, which we knew we could have ordered months ago? There is never enough time spent debriefing our successes and failures, reflecting on what we’ve learned and capturing that to improve in the future. 

If you're heading to the farm show in Woodstock this week, be sure to come visit, say hi and let me know what you think of the blog!

John Deere Canada booth at the 2014 Canada's Outdoor Farm Show

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Excellence Pursuit

I suppose the next time I commit to doing something daily, like blogging, I should consider a week when I'm home more than just to sleep. That being said, I did spend a considerable amount of time the past two days thinking about writing and while I didn't post, I did write. You'll hopefully see it someday but I can't share it just yet.

The challenge I've found, especially with trying to blog daily, is I am somewhat of a perfectionist. I have learned over the years that 80% is pretty good and if we can just get that far, then we can learn the rest as we go. Yet when it comes to writing, I am never happy with a post until I've pored over it for hours and feel I'd be proud to see it in print somewhere. In my mind, this was the pursuit of excellence. Or was it perfection? Is this what Godin speaks of as a downfall to producing art?

If I never post half of what I write because I don't believe it's 'good enough' or 'perfect enough', will I not improve at a slower rate than if I focus just on writing and sharing? After all, a good writer needs to be able to push something out fast do they not? I've never communicated full-time for a living but the journalists, bloggers and communications professionals I know are always following a story and striving to be first out the gate. No one wants to write about yesterday's news.

Blogging is somewhat this way although I tend to usually write about topics which may be ever-evolving, but rarely time-sensitive. That blogging daily would force me to come up first with something to write about, and then to accept it doesn't have to be perfect to be worth publishing is what the true value of this activity is about. Excellence is about continual improvement, trying and trying again, and always striving to be better next time.

After my first blog post, I got all sorts of recommendations for future Seth Godin and communications reading. One included Seth's blog and after scanning it briefly this morning, I think I am further understanding this concept. Some days, his blog posts are no more than an observation stated in a phrase or sentence. Is that not what I do on Twitter? Not everything fits in 140 characters though and maybe you don't have to write 500 words to have a worthy post?

Hmmm suddenly 4 more days of blogging seems quite reasonable.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Can I Blog Every Day For a Week?

I’m consuming books like crazy lately (reading isn’t accurate as half of them have been audio books in the car).  A little bit of non-fiction, some WWII-era and some personal development books – if that’s what the self-help section is now called? I don’t like either of those terms though because the books have been far more profound for me than any "be the best you can be" type books I've read in the past.

Perhaps subconsciously knowing it was the perfect compliment, I selected The Icarus Deception (SethGodin) off the library shelf when I picked up A Whole New Mind (Daniel Pink). The latter, recommended by a classmate was a light and uplifting read, er listen. There were many great anecdotes paralleling my day-to-day experiences, the odd "ah ha!" and several actionable takeaways to exercise the 'right' half of my brain. I was so intrigued, I copied many of the suggestions and references down as future homework.

The Icarus Deception has given me some homework too. Firstly, this blog post is the first in what will be an attempt to blog everyday, if only to write every day. I won't promise inspiration, but I will test the hypothesis that knowing you must 'create art' or write, leads you to look for more beauty and interpretation in your day. At a minimum, it'll be good practice.

So what is this book all about anyway? 

Albeit more deep and abstract than A Whole New Mind, the theme is not entirely different - flying higher, taking risks, ignoring the criticism and treating our work as art, in order to stand out and make a difference. Had I truly understood how challenging the book was when I read “[Godin's] most challenging book yet” on the jacket, I’m not sure I would’ve checked it out. But listening to it, I am enthralled by the underlying concepts and have replayed more than one section to ensure I am correctly hearing and interpreting Godin’s words.

It is one of those books I actually believe I'm wiser for hearing. It is just one trigger of several which is empowering me to embrace what makes me different, and not accept the mundanity of status quo. It is also a rally to challenge those who are continually seeking more, better and cheaper to look beyond the immediate and focus on long-term differentiation, which is only built through relationships and intimate understanding. Any argument against short-termism is always one I will favour.

I don't know if I could have clamoured through reading it, but if you can get your hands on an audio version and have several hours (its unabridged) The Icarus Deception is absolutely worth your time.