Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture

Nurturing people & plants

October 2, 2021
By Alex Barnard
Women in AG

Ellen Sparry is a go-to person for cereals research and production questions in Ontario as general manager of C&M Seeds in Palmerston, Ont., as well as wheat registration and performance test co-ordinator for the Ontario Cereal Crops Committee and chair of the newly formed Seeds Canada. Alex Barnard, associate editor of Top Crop Manager, Fruit & Vegetable and Potatoes in Canada, chatted with Sparry about good advice, the joy of watching things grow and the importance of conversation for the future of agriculture.

What made you decide to stick with agriculture?
I’m a farm girl, so I’ve probably been in ag almost since the day I was born. When I was deciding on a career path, I did actually start in a different direction – in hotel and food management, believe it or not, going to college. That lasted a couple of weeks – I knew it wasn’t for me. 

I went back home, heard an ad for the University of Guelph and realized that that was where my heart wanted to go. So, into ag I went – studied ag; fortunate enough to get a job in agriculture. I’ve really only worked for two companies in my entire career – both family run businesses – and that’s the path I’ve taken. I’m just happy where I am.

What do you like best about your newer role as general manager of C&M Seeds?
Really, it’s an extension of my career and I would say that that’s working with people. I have always, right from the start, worked with summer students and staff and at various levels of responsibility. But what I like best is watching things grow. So, whether it’s plants or people, that really has been what I’ve enjoyed most about all my roles.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I’ve received a lot of advice from people who probably didn’t realize they were giving it to me. One of those was a quote from a colleague, years ago in a paper, and what he said was, “Hire people who are smarter than you are and empower them.” It was fairly early in my career that I read that and it really stuck. So, that’s one big one. 

I like quotes. So, in The Martian, Matt Damon’s character says, “Just keep working the problem.” So, now that’s another thing I say.

For advice for others? Challenge the status quo. Always evaluate what’s going on and think of where improvements can be made and how you might contribute to that. 

For folks that are looking for a career in ag: do it. There are so many opportunities and it’s a wonderful industry to be a part of. You’ll find lots of people who are willing to help you out and help you advance your career. 

You don’t have to go through an ag college to participate, either. There are a lot of individuals [from non-ag universities] that’ve been hired as summer students [at C&M Seeds] for field work where we’re doing disease-testing. [There are] definitely lots of opportunities, so yes: do it.

What would you like to see more of in the coming years?
I would like to see more conversation between all sectors of the ag industry. We do a pretty good job of that, but I think we can do better. So, whether you’re a single producer or grower, you’re running a family business, or a multinational company, we all have a part to play in making sure we’re doing all we can to ensure food security for Canadians and globally. 

To make progress, I think that can only happen through more conversation and more understanding of each other’s roles. 

We all have to work together to find our way to that common solution and what we’re all looking for. So, [I’d like to see] more dialogue. •