Fawn Jackson knows firsthand the power of mentorship in helping youth in agriculture succeed. She speaks warmly of the people who made a difference along her career path, and she’s an advocate for taking advantage of opportunities to learn from others at every stage of the game.
“For me, mentorship has been such a key part of my success in the beef industry,” says Jackson, who is the director of policy and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), based in Ottawa.
“You might have a couple of really formal mentorships in your life, but I think that it’s those informal mentorships that are just as important to invest your time in.”
For Jackson, mentorship began at home with the support of her family. She was raised on her family’s purebred cow-calf operation, High Bluff Stock Farm, at Inglis, Manitoba. She is one of five daughters, and two of her sisters currently farm with her parents.
“Growing up in an agriculture community, it was just so encouraging, and they push you forward to achieve your best,” she says. “My mom and dad and sisters are at the forefront. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Early on, Jackson was interested in studying politics. The opportunity to study for two years at Pearson College UWC, a renowned international high school on Vancouver Island, helped her realize that her background in agriculture had a major role to play in her future, too. At the time she attended Pearson College, there were 200 students from 100 different countries studying.
“A lot of them didn’t know about agriculture, and to me, I had always grown up around agriculture and people who appreciated it,” she says. “It was really there that I realized just how special of an experience I’d had growing up on a farm and just how passionate I was about it.”
That realization led Jackson to the University of Alberta, where she completed a degree in natural resource and agricultural economics. Her post-secondary experience was very positive, and she credits the faculty and staff for helping fuel her passion for working in agriculture and raise her confidence to tackle the next challenges on her journey. She characterizes the support she found there as a “great kickstarter” to her career.
Jackson went on to obtain a master’s degree in international agriculture and development at Oklahoma State University. After graduate school, she began working for CCA as a policy analyst, combining her deep interest in both agriculture and politics. “Working at CCA is this wonderful merging of the two,” she says.
This first position with CCA allowed her to begin working with its executive, including Dennis Laycraft, CCA’s executive director. The opportunity to work closely with Laycraft and John Masswohl, former director of policy and international relations, was extremely valuable.
“Dennis Laycraft and John Masswohl have been absolutely instrumental in that transfer of all of the knowledge that they have,” she says. As part of this role, she also ran the first official year of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders mentorship program, allowing her to meet many people within the industry.
Jackson then moved into the role of environment manager, which aligned with her passion and appreciation for Canada’s grasslands, something that has played a major role in her work. After a few years, she became the first executive director for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), leading this forward-thinking stakeholder organization in the creation of a groundbreaking sustainable beef certification program.
Jackson is thankful for the mentorship she received from the environmental community in general during her time in these roles. “When I first started meeting with the environmental community, I was perhaps a little bit nervous about what we were going to find in common and where we were going to find areas that we could work together on, and we really did,” she recalls.
“That’s where the creation of, I would say, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef really stemmed from, and I think Lorne Finch and Barry Adams (of Cows and Fish), whether they knew it or not, were absolutely my inspiration to pull from to try and tackle that collaboration that came through the CRSB.”
She also had the opportunity to work with rancher Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, who served as the CRSB’s first chair and was another mentor to Jackson. “She is just such an inspiration as a human but also in her drive to bring all the different stakeholders together.”
A voice for the beef industry
Jackson’s experience in her earliest days at CCA set her up well for future responsibilities in the organization, including her present role. “It’s been this really lovely transition through and growth through CCA, and I can sincerely say I’ve loved every minute of it.”
She moved to Ottawa two years ago to lead CCA’s Ottawa team in communicating policies on behalf of beef producers to officials at the federal level.
“We of course set our priorities and our policies at our AGM and semi-annual,” she says. “Then it’s about communicating that to decision-makers and making sure that cattle producers are top of mind when they’re thinking about the environment or they’re thinking about trade or… all the different policy files that impact cattle producers.”
As well as communicating CCA’s priorities to federal officials, Jackson sits on the association’s foreign trade committee, and she has spoken on behalf of the Canadian beef industry in several recent trade negotiations, including the new NAFTA agreement.
“Representing the opinions of cattle producers in Ottawa as well as globally, I think has also become even more important as of late, especially on the environment file, where perhaps the Canadian context of cattle production on grasslands isn’t as appreciated for the amazing environmental stewardship that goes along with it.”
Becoming more engaged in advocating for Canada’s endangered grasslands, as well as the role of beef production in conserving these ecosystems, is something Jackson feels strongly about.
“I think today we certainly know that we can’t take for granted that people understand that role that beef production plays in the agriculture ecosystem,” she says. “So we’re getting more and more vocal about it and making sure that we’re able also to protect those lands, and by protect them I certainly mean keeping them in beef production.”
For Jackson, fully communicating this to Canadians includes highlighting the other positive ecosystem benefits related to beef production, such as wetland retention and increased biodiversity. “I think that there’s a lot of multiplying benefits to having a really robust beef industry that perhaps wasn’t as appreciated previously as we’re certainly trying to make it today.”
One ecosystem benefit that she’s particularly interested in is the role of grazing in fire control. “We’ve seen some really amazing examples out of British Columbia where beef cows have been utilized as a management tool alongside forestry companies to help protect communities from fire.”
“I think we’re really just getting started in how to collaboratively work more effectively together in some of these challenges that have come forward for society.”
Jackson sees great promise in the role of agriculture in Canada’s post-pandemic economic recovery. “I think that there’s just going to be even more excitement for people to come and join the agriculture workforce, for governments to invest in it, for international trading partners to want to secure really strong trading partners such as Canada. So for me, I think that there’s just a ton of opportunity on the horizon.”
An area of opportunity that she’s particularly enthusiastic about is creating possibilities for the next generation of Canadian beef producers. “I would say the beef community is very supportive in helping people succeed,” she says. “I think that it’s so important that we have diverse ideas coming to agriculture and that we make spaces for young people to thrive and succeed.”
One such space that she’s proud of is the Young Cattlemen’s Council, a CCA initiative that prepares future industry leaders for taking on roles on national boards. The young producers on the council also have the opportunity to meet with elected and appointed federal officials and share their perspectives with decision-makers.
“This is a really amazing opportunity for young beef producers and has been so effective for us in Ottawa in bringing their perspective because you can see that when they meet with MPs and senators, it’s just so much energy and people are so excited,” says Jackson.
Hearing these perspectives is vital, she continues, when considering the direction of future policy. “If we’re thinking about how to transition this huge amount of baby boomer farmland or equity, I think we really need to be mindful in the policies that we have and that we create to make sure that that next generation can be successful.”
Creating spaces for producers to access resources to help them succeed also extends to the question of inclusivity and diversity. “We should all be mindful of how we encourage diversity, whether that’s age or gender or cultural background,” says Jackson. “I think that it just makes us all stronger, and so being mindful of that and implementing thoughtful initiatives to support it is what’s going to make Canadian agriculture even stronger.”
One of her recommendations to encourage this inclusivity? Mentorship and not just for those starting their careers. She also suggests doing things such as inviting neighbours to meetings and encouraging them to sit on boards and keeping a list of names of people who might be interested in taking on certain roles.
“I really encourage people who are further along in their careers to help find people to mentor but also to have young people mentor them because I think it’s really key that as we move along our careers that we’re also mindful of the knowledge that perhaps different age categories or people from different backgrounds have for us.”