Leading the way in a complex field
December 13, 2019
From a young age, Jeff Vassart knew he wanted to be part of a team.
Whether he was working alongside his grandfather and father on a family farm near Pilot Mound or taking part in practice during his time playing collegiate hockey, Vassart understood that leadership and team dynamics were going to be central to his life.
“I’ve always enjoyed leading a team,” said Vassart from his office in Winnipeg where he sits high in the agriculture industry as president of Cargill Canada. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some very talented and capable people and I enjoy helping teams accomplish goals and setting people up to be successful.”
With more than two decades of experience in various roles with Cargill, including managing the company’s grains and oilseed business in Australia, the Assiniboine Agribusiness graduate said he’s been able to learn from a number of great leaders who invested their time and effort into him — something he’s eager to share with others.
“The staff at Assiniboine saw potential in me and gave me opportunities and a nudge here or there to go out and try new things,” said Vassart, who added it’s important to empower members of a team to share their input and make decisions. “There is more power in diversity in thought as opposed to one person trying to figure it out on their own.”
Vassart credits his early years on the farm, putting hay up in the summer to prepare for winter and logging long hours during calving season, as a catalyst for his success. Times when everyone on the mixed farm had to come together and work toward common goals were some of his favourite memories growing up.
“There is something special about calving season,” Vassart said. “Certainly they are long hours and hard work but it’s so gratifying when you see a calf being born and you know you’ve been successful in giving them a good start in life.”
Following a brief stint at North Dakota State University, where he played on the school’s hockey team, Vassart knew it was time to get serious about his education and enrolled at in Agribusiness at Assiniboine. He credits the program for giving him a much more diverse perspective on the industry than he had growing upon the farm.
It was there that I was really exposed to the broader value chain and all of the opportunities that exist in the ag industry.
After graduation, Vassart started his career with Cargill as a trainee at their grain elevator in Yorkton. Over the next two decades he would travel the world in roles with Cargill that ranged from national sales leader to member of the company’s Global Ag Supply chain leadership team. He’s been responsible for assets such as grain elevators, export terminals, and oilseed processing plants while being immersed in the grain buying and risk management system inherent in the industry.
With a firm understanding of the challenges and successes of the industry, Vassart said working alongside people dedicated to refining the sustainability and reliability of a complex global food system is what keeps him motivated.
“I’m fortunate to have been able to see the global food system from a unique perspective given my responsibilities with Cargill, whether that be in advanced or developing countries,” Vassart said. “Solving complex supply chain problems and figuring out how to add value for farmers and food companies is something that I love doing.”
One of the challenges of the industry is combatting misinformation, which can often spread quickly and broadly on social media.
“It’s become clear that consumers are more and more interested and curious about where their food is being grown and how it is being produced than ever before,” he said. “It’s our job to educate them and that can be difficult, because there are less people that have grown up in agriculture or food production so there is a disconnect because they haven’t experienced it. I was fortunate to grow up on a farm and understand where our food comes from but most people don’t have that same opportunity.”
If there is one thing he’d impress on the public, it’s how refined and progressive producers and their farms have become.
“I’m not sure there is an appreciation for how sophisticated farm businesses are,” Vassart said. “The ag industry is so innovative and farmers need to wear a number of different hats. They need to be able to run the operation which requires they be mechanically inclined and be able to fix things for themselves; they also need to be a finance manager and make decisions that will influence the short- and long-term profitability of the farm; and they need to be a human resource manager, marketer and the list goes on.”
That diversity has its benefits, leading to plenty of career opportunities within the industry. Vassart said the ability to grow and be consistently challenged within an organization such as Cargill is a big part of why he chose agriculture. The path he has chosen has provided a rewarding life for his high school sweetheart and wife, Lori, who is also an Assiniboine graduate, and the couple’s three children.
From engineering to accounting; and sales to marketing there is a fit for anyone motivated within the sector.
“It’s the most dynamic and progressive industry that I know of. And you don’t need to be from a farm to be successful in agriculture because there are so many different career opportunities in our industry.”
If you want to have an impact on food security, lift people out of poverty, help in the fight against climate change, or work with innovative technologies, agriculture and food production is an industry where you can do all those things. Looking forward, Vassart said he is optimistic about the role that Canada will play in the global supply chain.
“We have some of the most productive land and innovative farmers in the world; and Canada will continue to produce more food than we can consume,” Vassart said. “We need to make sure we’re telling our story about the Canadian ag industry as a reliable producer of safe and sustainable food products.”