By Emily Croft
Ray Robertson’s passion for growing his local community in Grey County has led to a long career with international impacts.
His leadership and commitment to agriculture has been recognized, as Ray was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in June, and will be celebrated at the national level at the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 4 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Ray played an integral role in the reorganization of the Ontario Forage Council and the founding of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association. He sought new markets for hay through the creation of the Ontario Hay and Forage Cooperative. Ray shared his knowledge and experience with local and international communities through the promotion of the Canadian Cooperative Model and the development of Grey Agricultural Services Centre.
These are just a few items on a long list of ways that Ray has given his heart and soul to the global agriculture community.
One of Ray’s greatest motives for his years of work has been giving back to the community that has always supported him.
“We lost our barn in a fire in 1979,” Ray recounts.
“That summer when we were rebuilding, people came out of the woodwork and asked how they could help.
“I will never forget what they did for us.”
Ray’s career has repaid this support.
“My wife once asked, ‘Do you never get sick of going to meetings?’
“I said, with all of the people that helped us rebuild our barn, I could never begin to help them individually – but I can do something to help the community.”
Ray’s involvement in the industry has been lifelong. From Grey County to Nepal, his impact has been international.
A lifetime in ag
“I was born on a farm and grew up with it. That was my beginning,” says Ray.
“We had crops, pigs, and we milked about 15 cows and sold cream at that time. I quit high school in Grade 11 when my father took sick.
“When I told my mother I was going to quit school she was against it, but we had a lot of work on the farm.”
While Ray was at home running the farm and working a bit at Keady Livestock, the local livestock sales barn, he realized he needed to return to school.
“Our farm wasn’t big enough.”
Ray went through a precursor program at Georgian College in Owen Sound to finish his Grade 12 education and then continued into business college.
“I then started with the Ministry of Revenue and was with them for 12 years. We also still had the farm at that point.”
Ray sold the farm before getting married. After living in Owen Sound for five years, he bought another farm.
“We had a mixed farm in Markdale. We got some beef cows, and then switched into dairy and bought cows and quota. We milked for eight months before the farm was struck by lightning. That was a horrible year. But we rebuilt the barn and carried on.
“I always wanted to be a dairy farmer.”
Ray’s position with the Ministry of Revenue and his passion for dairy farming set the foundation for many of his contributions.
Ray praises Junior Farmers for broadening his perspective and being part of his community involvement.
“I was active in Junior Farmers at local, county, and provincial level and served as president. It was one of the best things in my life – it gave me structure and confidence.”
The traits that were developed in Junior Farmers were valuable later in Ray’s career, lending to his propensity for leadership and innovation.
As a dairy farmer, Ray got involved with Gay Lea Foods Co-operative as a delegate, director, and chair. He was elected as their representative to The Co-operators Group board of directors for 14 years, and the Canadian Co-operative Association board of directors for nine years.
In his time with the Canadian Cooperative Association, Ray chaired the International Development Committee. The goal of the association was to reduce global poverty through the introduction of the co-operative model.
“This started opening opportunities to do an overseas mission, which was my first exposure to the developing world. It was a bit of a culture shock, but it changed my life.”
Ray had some suggestions for improving the International Development Committee, with the goal of providing assistance where it was needed most.
“I suggested that we should have an opportunity to see these places and bring back information about what needed to be achieved. All shareholders were unanimous that they wanted this international program.”
The first international trip Ray embarked on was a study tour for nine days in the Philippines and five days in Thailand.
“When we visited where the projects had been done, it was amazing how it changed the lives of those people. You could see the differences in the communities we had worked in compared to the ones we didn’t,” says Ray.
Three months later, he was asked to do a feasibility study in Nepal for a pilot dairy development project.
“We travelled to dairy co-operators across Nepal. I suggested a one-year, one-area pilot project and then if it was successful, we could expand it across the province.”
The project was successful, and although Ray didn’t anticipate returning to Nepal, he came home with plenty more ideas to contribute to their community.
“I came back and had a brain wave – I thought, ‘Maybe we could put a library in this school,’” says Ray.
“I met with the senior management to see if Gay Lea would have an interest in fundraising for a library. We were very successful and raised more money than anticipated. We put in a library, science lab, and computer lab in the local school.
“After a year, I was invited to go and participate in the official inauguration.
“I thanked them, but it was the other side of the world, and the money wasn’t raised for me to travel. It was raised for the school. I said the earliest I could go was September and that they should do the right thing for the kids and open the school.
“It was purely coincidental that I met a guy in Mississauga that had a documentary-film business, and he called and wanted to work with me. I said I know nothing about the film industry, but he wanted translation and contacts in Nepal.”
Ray agreed to work with the film company and set off to Nepal, with the additional goal of putting together a story about the benefits of the Canadian grant program for the Canadian Co-operative Association.
Ray was met by a delegation of 20 people at the airport. He had arranged some interviews for his story and was told to be at the school for a big event, but no other details were shared.
“I was in tears when I got there. There was a great, big banner with my name and a big band, and the streets were lined with people. They had flowers and a three-hour program of singing and dancing and speeches.
“The school was going to be there for the next generations to come to, and they value family above anything else.”
Ray has continued to visit Nepal 16 times for mission work.
“I consider myself very fortunate in the agriculture field to be able to travel. I’ve been on several trade missions and have been able to meet a lot of people and make connections around the world.”
While Ray has contributed to agriculture around the world, his local ag community was not left behind.
Ray is well known among farmers in Grey County and beyond.
Starting in the late 1980s, Ray was the field-person for the Land Stewardship Program for several years.
“That was a really positive program. It became much bigger than anticipated,” says Ray.
The goal of the program was to promote practices that reduced erosion on farms and encourage soil stewardship through reduced-tillage practices. The program was joined by 300 farmers in Grey County.
The success of this program led Ray to pursue another conservation project to reduce the erosion of the banks of the Bighead River.
The Bighead River Demonstration Project spanned three years and included 120 individual projects to reduce erosion on the riverbanks. Ray then continued on to complete projects on the Beaver River as well and took on the task of managing the Environmental Farm Plan program in Grey County.
“Between the Environmental Farm Plan and the Bighead River I was working with about 600 farmers.”
During his position with the Land Stewardship program, Ray worked out of the Ministry of Agriculture office in Markdale.
With an invitation from an ag rep and a young family at home, it was valuable to have an official desk.
He also developed a network of farmers across the county and gained insight into the role of extension in Ontario agriculture.
“When they closed the ministry office in Markdale on April 30, 2000, I needed somewhere to work so I had the idea to open an agricultural services office.
“We opened the Grey County Agricultural Services on May 1 of 2000.”
Grey County Agricultural Services has addressed the need for information and innovation left by the closure of OMAFRA extension offices. Ray shares that over 3,000 farmers in Grey County have attended their workshops.
The organization also took over the hosting of Grey-Bruce Farmer’s Week, an annual week of conferences sharing information with producers in all sectors of agriculture.
“Timing is everything,” says Ray.
“When the Ministry of Ag office closed, Grey-Bruce Farmer’s Week was going to end. The farm organizations of Grey and Bruce counties called a meeting and wanted it to carry on, so they called for someone to coordinate it and I was one of 14 people and got the job.”
Ray’s work with Grey County Agricultural Services has produced an organization and extension model that is recognized across Canada.
Ray also continues to manage the Ontario Forage Council and was one of the founding directors of the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, recognizing value in supporting and improving forage production.
While this only acknowledges a few of Ray’s accomplishments and contributions, his local involvement has contributed to agriculture on a national and international level.
With all these irons in the fire, one might wonder what Ray does for fun. When asked, he answers that “agriculture is already fun to begin with.
“I’ve always said farmers are the cream of the crop. Working with the farm community is big for me.
“Ag has a great future, even though it’ll be different than what we’ve grown up with. It’s a great way of life.”
In his free time, Ray enjoys spending time in his local community.
“I’ve always had an interest in the community. I’m also involved in the church. If everybody does a little bit, it can mean a lot to a lot of people – every little bit helps.”
Ray looks forward to continuing to spend more time in his community and with family, including his grandchildren, as he begins to pass on responsibilities to his colleagues.
“My wife wants me to spend some time at Miller Lake this summer. We’ve had the cottage for a few years, and I hope to spend a bit more time there this year.
“I no longer play the main role in operations,” Ray says about his work at Grey County Agricultural Services.
“I’ve passed on a lot of responsibility to my other great staff at the ag centre, and they are doing a great job, so I can step back and realize stuff is in great hands.” BF