Agriculture Boss Mary Robinson Reflects on the Search for Purpose

Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s first female president didn’t plan to follow in her forebears’ footsteps.

Mary Robinson, president, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

My family came to Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s and started farming — and we’ve been doing it ever since. My father’s father started our formal agribusiness. He never had a lot of education, but he was an entrepreneurial guy with a fantastic work ethic and a strong sense of community.

He imparted those qualities to his two boys, each married with three kids. Now, the six of us in my generation have our own suite of agribusinesses. Half of us are in the business daily, and half of us have careers outside of the business as well as ownership.

Here’s how I found my way back to my family’s line of work, even after fully expecting to step away from it.

Freedom to Explore Alternatives

As I grew up, my dad was most vocal in saying: Don’t come home to farm. He saw the stresses firsthand, the sleepless nights, and the constant challenges. He’d studied to be a chemical engineer and got wooed to come home to farm with his father, brother, and the women in the family. He really encouraged us to seek careers outside of agriculture so that we might find our own paths.

When I finished university, I traveled and saw a whole lot of the world. And I was very fortunate to do that. So when I decided to come home, I felt satisfied because I hadn’t seen anything that topped what this type of work was offering. By then, it was clear it was the right pick for me.

In encouraging me to pursue other curiosities, I don’t think my dad had the goal of reverse psychology. But he never pushed me. And that’s why I don’t have the nagging sense of what else might be out there.

Blazing a Unique Trail

After my husband and I had our second child, I sought out the local federation of agriculture and asked if there were any opportunities to be involved. That was really the beginning of how I started being involved in agri-politics, as my parents before me have been. It was honestly just part of how I was brought up to be.

I moved swiftly through the ranks from county rep to being on the executive, and then being president on a couple of national boards, and then over to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, where I later became the first female president in the federation’s history.

Rejecting Imposter Syndrome

When I see that I’ve been named to a list of powerful women as a result of my position, it feels conflicting because I don’t recognize myself in those honors. It makes me think of a favorite quote: Leadership is not about being the best, but leadership is about making everybody better.

At the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, I’m surrounded by amazing people I get to lead. But I would like to think that I am always quick to listen to other people and encourage them to express what they have to say because I’m a firm believer in collaboration.

When I’m acknowledged as a powerful person, I feel a bit like an impostor. As I see it, I’m just taking everyone’s power and amplifying it. But if you listen to the imposter-syndrome voice in your head, it will completely throw off all of your momentum and all of your confidence.

I’ve had people who have challenged—and not necessarily to my face—the merit of having me at the table because I’m not a conventional farmer by any stretch of the imagination. The term “farmer” is sacred to me, and I don’t blithely toss it around. That said, a lot of men who run agribusiness are indeed more business people than they are traditional farmers, but they would never be examined to the same level as a woman who runs an agribusiness. It’s a different measuring stick.

I’d say the goal is not to get caught up in the double standards but instead to brush them aside and push forward. Look at any given situation and acknowledge that the biggest risk you stand to take is not taking the risk at all. So push on.

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(Brittany Gawley/Handout photo)