BRING ON THE BARLEY
ERIN ARMSTRONG TAKES THE HELM OF THE BARLEY COUNCIL OF CANADA
BY ELLEN COTTEE • ABOVE PHOTO BY ROB MCMORRIS
A born-and-raised Winnipegger, Erin Armstrong has spent more than 20 years in the agriculture industry and has become a widely respected leader. Following management stints at Canterra Seeds, the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) and the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute (BMBRI), she’s taken the helm of the Barley Council of Canada (BCC) to lead the organization through its current management transition. After a recent strategic review of the BCC, key areas of change were identified, such as tweaking its partnerships with other barley industry bodies, and Armstrong is ready to jump into action.
GrainsWest: What drew you to agriculture as a career path?
Erin Armstrong: I had a high school biology teacher who was one of those influential teachers in my life. He said, why don’t you think about agriculture? My first reaction was the typical: but I’m not from the farm. He said it’s not just about farming, so he also planted that seed in my mind.
GW: How did you end up choosing your undergraduate major?
EA: It was a process of elimination. I knew I didn’t want to do just chemistry or biology, and I’m very technical, so it came down to agriculture. I was getting my undergrad degree at the University of Manitoba, and at that time they had a program where you rotated through different departments over six weeks to figure out where to specialize. Again, it was a process of elimination to find an undergraduate degree in food sciences.
GW: Where did your career take you?
EA: I travelled for several years and I looked into lab technology jobs, a couple of food companies and also research labs and I wandered around Europe and Australia. Then it was time to go to grad school. A whole bunch of circumstances lined up. I ended up doing my research under a scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa and that’s what really got me involved in grains. After that, I went to the United States for a couple years and worked for General Mills.
GW: What eventually brought you back to Canada?
EA: I joined Canada Malting in Calgary. I spent 14 years in the malting and brewing industry, six at Canada Malting and then eight years back in Winnipeg with the BMBRI. I then switched gears to the seed industry and spent 11 years with Canterra Seeds.
GW: How did you end up at the helm of the BCC?
EA: The BCC was going through an in-depth strategic review over the course of eight to 10 months, and in casual conversation with someone about whether I was going to be retiring, we started talking further about the direction of the BCC. The reason I signed on is the change aspect—so much is changing in all sectors. I was part of the industry roundtable process that preceded the strategic review the BCC undertook, and there were other changes happening in the BCC infrastructure as well. It’s interesting to have been working at the back-end of this strategic review in the beginning to now being on the front-end in the
Having had 14 years of experience in the malting and brewing industry, and of course handling barley, among other crops when I was with Canterra Seeds, I know the people and the organizations we’re working with. That helps a lot. Coming back into barley specifically after having a broader focus, I’ve had to come up to speed and become more familiar with areas like feed barley, having had less experience there.
Jill McDonald, Delaney Seiferling, Luke Harford, Brittany Burden and Erin Armstrong pictured celebrating the first ever Canadian Beer Day, which took place on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.
GW: What are some of the changes that can be expected for the BCC?
EA: No. 1, we now have a service-level agreement with Cereals Canada. I consider it a partnership. We’re working with them on market access issues, communications and other similar issues. The other two main pieces we’re looking at … we’re working much more closely with the BMBRI on big research issues and more closely with the CMBTC on development and broader industry discussions.
GW: What led to these closer relationships?
EA: We had to take a look at what the functions of an entire value chain are. What development and what research is important? Often, there’s no shortage of work for all these organizations to do, there’s just a shortage of resources. We’re trying to collectively figure out how best to get done what really needs to get done.
It’s like trying to use a telescope and a microscope at the same time, which can be difficult. We want to see the broader context, nationally and internationally, but we also have to look at the specifics of our own organizations to see what we need to do there.
GW: What would the impact of these changes be on farmers in Canada?
EA: These changes and closer collaborations will ensure that collectively, resources are used as best they can be. We can avoid duplication of work and we can better fill in gaps. Of course, we’ll all focus on our areas, but as we’re all talking, there may be times to have a unified voice. Also, increased collaborative communication provides insight and helps us look at opportunities for further changes that benefit producers.
GW: The BCC was part way through an AgriMarketing Program (AMP) grant from AAFC when the strategic review was taking place. The grant is intended to look at long-term feed barley export opportunities. What is the future for that program?
EA: BCC still has the AMP project, although it was paused while undergoing the strategic review. We needed to take a look at what we’re doing and what we’re going to be doing. There’s been minor activity this year on it, and we’re in year two of the current three-year project.
CMBTC is taking the lead on market development plans for barley and we’re still discussing what to do on the feed barley front. AAFC is aware that we’re working with CMBTC and others on a comprehensive market development strategy for all barley.
GW: What does the future of Canada’s barley industry look like to you?
EA: First off, barley acres went up this past year, so it is clear barley remains relevant. Second, there’s a focus—not just in barley, but other crops as well—on diversification. That could be diversification of use or of the market. Even looking around at things like The Barton Report and seeing the emphasis on increasing exports and diversification, it’s important to us to take issues like these into account as we work on them. The big thing is, anytime there is change and unsettlement, there’s opportunity. We need to make sure we capitalize on that opportunity.