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Kim McConnell is a top-down thinker.

In 2016, the founder and former CEO of communications agency AdFarm initiated and advanced a national strategy to rebuild public trust in farming and the food industry. A living legend within the agri-food industry and a driven advocate of the farm sector, he was uniquely suited to the task.

McConnell grew up on his parents’ grain farm (unofficially established in 1882) in Hamiota, Manitoba. “In many ways that’s still home,” he says. Since he was small, he wanted to become a farmer. His parents were supportive, with the provision that he get a post-secondary education and spend two years off the farm following other pursuits—opportunities they were not afforded.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree with an agriculture focus at the University of Manitoba, McConnell returned to farming and a job in crop input sales. He worked rented land near Brandon until its owners returned to farm it. He decided it wasn’t financially viable to join his parents’ operation, but he was encouraged to move into marketing at his sales job, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1981, McConnell moved to Calgary to take charge of the company’s advertising and promotions. “I knew absolutely bloody nothing about what the hell I was doing,” he recalls with typical good humour. A quick study, he realized ag companies were working with advertising agencies that just didn’t get farming. “They were top creative people, but didn’t have a clue about the darned ag industry, nor did they care.”

With his wife’s blessing, he set up an agriculture-focused marketing and communications agency in the basement of their home. Unlike those other agency types, McConnell cared deeply about agriculture. He attributes this to the rural values and sense of community instilled in him by his parents and his involvement in 4-H.

The company grew quickly, merging with another to form AdFarm, a communications agency specializing in food and agriculture that he led as CEO for more than two decades. Ten years ago, when he turned 50, McConnell experienced a New Year’s Eve moment, reflecting on his past and assessing the possibilities of the future.

He loved the business, but realized he no longer wanted to run it. With nine months’ notice, he stepped down but retained an office and changed focus. “I get to play every day,” he says. “Playing is doing things that will advance the things I like, and that’s youth, entrepreneurism and agriculture.”

Encompassing all these areas, when GrainsWest talked with McConnell, he was preparing to give a seminar on good governance to representatives of international 4-H associations.

While working on farm advocacy projects, McConnell also advises agricultural corporations, providing perspective on what he terms “this period of dramatic change and opportunity.”

“Sometimes organizations are so close to the trees they can’t see the forest, he explains.” He challenges them to identify these opportunities and create a path to capturing them.

Similarly, he works with farming causes and organizations, sitting on various boards. “I’m very big on governance,” he says. “Get governance right and hold management accountable while giving encouragement and clear, crisp direction.”

In his work building public trust in farming and the food system, he plays the role of catalyst, working with companies, organizations and governments to coordinate and collaborate on the issue. “There’s only so much time, money, people and energy,” he says. “By golly, let’s get on the same path, and let’s get going.”

The process began two years ago, when the federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) governments met and concluded that public trust is critical to forwarding the agricultural sector.

“It’s a long-term issue that in many ways we’re not winning,” McConnell says. “The consumer is getting further and further away from the production of their food. Unless we start telling our story so the consumer knows what we’re doing and feels comfortable with that, then we potentially make it harder to do business and advance our industry.”

Starting small, he led a 25-member committee in producing a plan, which he then shopped around to agricultural organizations around the country for their input. The committee returned this industry input to the FPT ministers who used it to establish the policy framework of the national agricultural plan that will succeed Growing Forward 2. A central pillar of the new plan is establishing public trust.

This process, dubbed The Canadian Journey to Public Trust, produced the Public Trust Steering Committee. Comprised of agri-food professionals from farmer groups and processors to food retailers, it is the central hub that guides funding as well as encouraging and forwarding the overarching trust movement.

The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, which McConnell chairs, listens to consumers and shares this research and resulting messaging with industry groups. Agriculture in the Classroom works with schools, Food & Farm Care with consumers, and Agriculture More Than Ever encourages farmers to speak up. While these “amplifier groups” spread tailored messaging, each company and association also carries out its own communications work. In B.C. for instance, dairy and blueberry producers may zero in on the Vancouver market.

The trust-building process will be lengthy, and McConnell again sees himself as that catalyst bringing people together, helping them create a path to success. “But then I’m better to get out of the road and let somebody else handle it and advance it to the next level,” he says.

On June 30, 2017, exactly 10 years from the day he stepped down as CEO of AdFarm, the announcement was made that McConnell would be appointed to the Order of Canada. He notes that agriculture has been underrepresented among recipients, but he’s honoured to attend the as-yet-unscheduled investiture ceremony and represent the industry, which he says deserves all the credit.

“I wish I could take the whole ag industry with me,” he says, “because that’s my family.”


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