by Emily Leeson
Mary Robinson, the new president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), grew up as a member of one of P.E.I.’s oldest farming families.
“My dad and my uncle were the two that ran that business when I was a kid,” she said. That business was Eric C. Robinson Inc., a company Robinson’s grandfather incorporated in 1962. “My uncle had the dirty boots and my dad had the clean boots. I was exposed to both sides, though probably with a little bit more of an exposure to the clean-booted side of the business.”
These days, Robinson is finding a balance between the work that still keeps her deeply rooted in the rich soils of P.E.I. and the advocacy work for agriculture across Canada that she’s passionate about.
“Like a few families on P.E.I., we’ve been here a while,” she said. “I think I’m kind of the sixth generation.”
The first Robinsons began farming in Augustine Cove, P.E.I., early in the 19th century. In the 1940s, Eric Robinson took over operation of the family farm and he was joined in the business by his two sons in the 1960s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, grandchildren joined the family business, making it truly a multi-generational family operation.
Robinson said she grew up very much involved in agriculture, but in a home that was five kilometres from the business’s home base.
The scope of the family business is big.
“We crop about 2,000 acres of land here on P.E.I.,” said Robinson. Historically, their cash crop has been potatoes, with a rotation of hay and typically barley.
Today, the family owns and operates several businesses, including Eric C. Robinson Inc., Island Lime, Garden Isle Farms, and PEI Agromart Ltd. In addition to produce marketing, the affiliate companies provide a range of agricultural products and services, including fertilizer, crop protectants, lime, gypsum, custom application, and certified crop adviser services.
With an interest in the business side of things, Robinson eventually studied business and economics at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. But even as a wanderlust took over after her studies, her focus remained on farming.
“When I finished university, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now? It’s too soon to come home,’” said Robinson. “My Mum and Dad were married pretty early, and they were very keen on supporting me in travelling and seeing some of the world. They said, ‘You’ve got the rest of your life to come home and work. But when you’re young, that’s the time to go and explore.’”
Able to connect with some of her father’s contacts in the U.K., Robinson found work with an agronomist in northern Scotland. From there, she travelled to Glasgow where she worked in the quality assurance and control lab at a potato processing factory.
When she eventually did return home to P.E.I., she brought that experience with her.
“Seeing how people farm in Scotland, it was pretty amazing,” said Robinson. “Their fields are small, their equipment is small, and their approach is very specialized.”
Situated back on the Island, Robinson found her own niche within the family business. Today, along with her cousins Lori and Andrew, Robinson manages Eric C. Robinson and its subsidiaries. That’s not all she does though.
“As my cousin and business partner Andrew says, the job that pays for the gas in my truck is that I am a certified crop adviser, and I manage our custom agricultural lime spreading business, Island Lime,” she said. “I go over soil samples, make recommendations, troubleshoot. I also manage the heavy equipment and I oversee the maintenance and operation of our fleets and the kind of stuff that goes with that.”
She’s also found the time to get increasingly involved in industry politics.
Robinson joined the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture board in 2008, and was the provincial federation’s president from 2015 to 2017. After serving on the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council board for seven years, she became the chair in 2017. That same year, she received the P.E.I. Women’s Institute’s Woman in Agriculture Recognition Award. Robinson also serves on the board of directors for the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity.
TWO SETS OF BOOTS
“Now on a day-to-day basis, I have both dirty and clean boots,” said Robinson with a laugh, adding that the CFA understands her dual roles.
“I am definitely here for planting and harvest seasons, which is when we do most of our work as far as application goes,” she said. “I can’t lose sight of the fact that I have to look after my own farm and agri-businesses. And I’m not the first person who’s had things to do in the spring who’s held the position. It’s pretty standard. The federation’s very friendly and sympathetic to what it’s like to have heavy-workload times of the year.”
Formed in 1935, the CFA is a farmer-funded national umbrella organization comprised of provincial general farm organizations, as well as national and interprovincial commodity groups. Representing all commodities and farms of all sizes, the group represents approximately 200,000 farm families.
Robinson was elected CFA president at the group’s annual general meeting in Ottawa in late February. Her appointment marks the first time in the organization’s 84 years that an Islander has held that position. She is also the first female to take on the job.
“There were certainly all kinds of high fives that happened and that’s important,” she said about being the first female in the role. “But I think that moment of the touchdown dance has passed, and it’s time to get down to work and prove that even though women are a different gender, we’re just here to get the work done.”
Only a few months into the job, Robinson spent a number of days in Ottawa in April lobbying more than 50 senators, MPs, and those hoping to become MPs. Her message to them was loud and clear.
“We rolled out the three main benefits that we see agriculture bringing to the country: economic prosperity, diversity, and growth; environmental leadership; and food security,” she said. “Agriculture in Canada brings those things to the population at large, and government needs to set up their contribution with some vision, leadership, and investment.”
From there, Robinson made a trip to Winnipeg to sit in on a crop logistics working group meeting with producers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
“To sit there and hear the frustrations that they are working with getting their crop to market via rail and then shipped – wow,” she said. “The more you learn about all the pockets of agriculture and all the different challenges and opportunities that they face or have facing them, it’s overwhelmingly exciting.”
She’s eager to do what she can on behalf of producers.
“We do everything we can to ensure that the voice of producers is heard,” said Robinson. “I think I can say I am a problem solver at heart, so have the ability to gather all this information and try to aggregate it and funnel it down to something useful. It’s exciting. And what a wonderful group of people at CFA.”