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A partnership pioneer: Dr. Douglas Hedley joins the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame

If you had to capture the exceptional career of Dr. Douglas Hedley in one word, that word might be “partnership.” While we might not think of it, the food on our tables is the product of an enormous amount of cooperation between farmers and food processors, retailers and transporters, restaurants and food inspectors. It’s a bit like a symphony—many players create a harmonious piece of music.

Canadians are fortunate to have one of the most diverse and high-quality food supplies anywhere in the world. This is the story of one of the people who helped make it that way: Dr. Douglas Hedley, whose decades-long career of service to agriculture is now being recognized with an induction into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Rural roots, global perspective

Douglas Hedley was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame (Photo provided by Douglas Hedley)

Douglas has deep roots in agriculture. This passion took root in Ontario’s Haldimand County, south of Hamilton, at his family’s purebred beef and hog farm. “All of the family was involved in agriculture in one way or another,” he says, through 4-H, the Junior Farmers Association of Ontario, soil and crop improvement associations, and county co-ops.

He began his education in a one-room rural public school, a fitting start for a lifetime of study about the business of farming he continues to this day. He says “it was obvious” he would pursue post-secondary studies at the natural place for a bright young Ontario farmer: the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. “It was there that I learned about economics and a much wider world than the farm I grew up on,” he recalls.

His potential was quickly recognized by The Rockefeller Foundation, which offered him a full scholarship provided he spend a year in South America teaching at their program. His time as Rockefeller Overseas Scholar brought him into contact with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), or “CG Group,” the world’s largest public agricultural research network. To this day, the Government of Canada continues to support the CGIAR’s goal of reducing global poverty and hunger.

Douglas’ work with the CGIAR took him to agricultural projects around the world, gaining valuable experience he would later draw on when designing agricultural programs in Canada. It was in West Africa that he met Walt Anderson, former head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of British Columbia. Walt was working in Ghana for Canadian International Development Agency (now part of Global Affairs Canada), and the two would become dear friends and kindred intellectual spirits. During one of their many exchanges, Walt asked a question that Douglas would return to throughout his career: how can the federal government treat all farmers equally, when agricultural laws and programs differ so widely across Canada?

A farmer’s public servant

In 1972, Douglas joined Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). It was the beginning of a distinguished career in the Department that would put him in contact with some of the biggest decisions impacting agriculture until his retirement in 2004. Canadian agriculture and food had gained a formidable champion in Ottawa, instantly recognizable by his signature cowboy boots and belt buckle.

As Douglas knew from personal experience, farmers have to deal with a wide range of risks to their operations that can be beyond their ability to manage. Extreme weather, invasive pests, or a sudden trade barrier can deal a catastrophic blow to a farm’s bottom line. There had been many government programs introduced over the years to provide a backstop against these risks, which by the 1990s had accumulated into a patchwork of rules covering different regions and commodities.

Drawing on his skills as an economist and farmer, Douglas helped draft the 1991 Farm Income Protection Act (FIPA), Canada’s first modern farm safety net. It brought farmers together under a single framework, and was painstakingly crafted to ensure that planting decisions were directed by the market, the terms of new trade agreements respected, and each region and commodity treated equally. Not for the last time, Douglas was guided by the question of fairness he had discussed with his friend Walt. “The massive difference was that it set one Act for all of Canada, and all of agriculture,” Douglas explains. “It got over the notion that we had to have different policies in Eastern and Western Canada.”

Lessons in economics and life

By this point in his career, Douglas had already established himself as a highly-respected thinker and skillful navigator of the Ottawa structure. But those who worked with Douglas were perhaps most struck by his generosity as a teacher and mentor.

In the early 2000s Marco Valicenti and Christine Angelo both served as senior policy advisors to Douglas and look back fondly on the time they shared with him. Christine is now a Director at the Department of Canadian Heritage, and Marco is a Director General at AAFC. “For me, the biggest thing that I got from Douglas was his mentoring ability,” Christine says. “He spent a lot of time with a lot of people.” According to Marco, in addition to Douglas’ accomplishments, a big part of his legacy is the duty he felt to groom the next set of managers in the Public Service. “He felt he had a responsibility to do that, which at the time wasn’t always the case.”

Both Marco and Christine still vividly remember their days beginning with the sound of Douglas’ cowboy boots leaving the elevator, a call to attention and daily reminder that while they may be seated in front of computers, they worked on behalf of the agriculture and food industry. In his office behind a wood-panelled cupboard was a whiteboard that became the stuff of legend at the department. Marco, Christine, and many others who were taken under his wing would listen as Douglas gave generously of his time. “He lived to teach the most complex material in a digestible way that anyone could understand,” Marco recalls. “He did that because he felt he had the need to impart knowledge, not just on management or economics but about life.”

The path to partnership

By the end of the 1990s, concern was growing that the treadmill of negotiations over ad-hoc farm support programs was leaving little time and energy to collaborate on longer-term goals for the sector, such as improved food safety and sustainability. The country needed a new approach that moved beyond crisis management and brought everyone to the table, and Douglas was just the person to help make it happen. Showing the skill of a master negotiator, he worked tirelessly to ensure every province and territory felt they were heard in Ottawa and had a stake in any change of policy direction.

The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Framework Agreement on Agriculture and Agri-food for the Twenty-First Century was reached in 2000 by Ministers in what became known as the “Whitehorse Accord.” For the first time, agriculture policy would be planned in five-year increments with all provinces and territories at the table, advancing a set of agreed-upon goals. Through this new partnership, concrete changes were made that established Canada as a world leader in food safety, innovation and environmentally-responsible production, and a top-five agri-food exporter.

The Framework has been continually revisited over the years to respond to the rapid pace of change in the sector. It has now evolved into the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a $3-billion, five-year shared investment by federal, provincial and territorial governments that supports tens of thousands of farmers and food processors as they put sustainable and healthy food on the tables of Canadians and consumers around the world.

Canadian Agricultural Partnership - Partenariat canadien pour l’agriculture

What is the Canadian Agricultural Partnership?

The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is a five-year agreement between federal, provincial and territorial governments. It strengthens the agriculture and agri-food sector through investments in programs to support key drivers of competitiveness, including innovation, trade, sustainability and risk management.

A career honoured

Despite his many accomplishments, Douglas remains modest. In his self-deprecating, soft-spoken manner, he is quick to point out that his time at AAFC was shared with “an amazing wealth of talented people” serving under “very able and thoughtful ministers seeking solutions.”

Douglas’ lifelong commitment to agriculture has earned him a well-deserved spot in the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame alongside some of the leading agricultural visionaries since Confederation. His nomination honours his leadership, innovation and influence as a “foremost expert on Canadian agricultural policy.”

For Douglas, agriculture is not a career, it’s a life-long passion. After ‘retiring’ from AAFC, he has maintained his busy pace of speaking, writing and travelling, including a recent report on agri-food policy from research organization Agri-Food Economic Systems. He is still working with organizations who are dedicated to improving farm incomes, solving trade disputes and deepening our appreciation and understanding of agriculture. It’s a fitting bookend for a distinguished career on behalf of agriculture and food everywhere.

To learn more about the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and the programs available and how they can benefit you, please visit the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website. The Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame website provides a treasure trove of material on historical figures in the sector, including the 2020 slate of inductees.

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