Finding success by striving for yourself, your industry and your community: Carolyn Van Den Heuvel

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

I grew up on a beef farm outside of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. From a young age, my brother and I were involved in the farm. Looking back, my gender was never really a consideration on the farm, we all just did what we were expected to do. I did chores, drove tractors, learned how to weld, it was just part of growing up on the farm. I did have a bit of an “anything boys can do, I can do better attitude”, which was encouraged by some of the adults in my life! I was involved in 4-H, Pony Club and sports – my parents were extremely supportive and maybe a little crazy.

With a love of agriculture, I decided to attend (the former) Nova Scotia Agricultural College where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in Animal Sciences minoring in Agricultural Business. Upon graduation, I wasn’t quite sure where my career path was going but the one thing I did know, was that I wanted to work in agriculture, at the producer level in a capacity that helped move the industry forward. I spent a few years working on dairy farms, where I expanded my knowledge of the industry and agricultural business management. The time I spent working on those farms gave me invaluable experience that I can draw upon in my current career.

About 5 years ago, I started working with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association on a pilot project in partnership with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. My position was funded through the Career Focus program delivered by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The job involved supporting producers in developing farm safety plans. From that project, I continued to work with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture on term projects and that eventually led to the position I am in today, Manager of Farm Safety Nova Scotia.

Had you asked me 6 years ago if I thought I would be working in farm health and safety, I likely would have chuckled. But here I am, working in a career at the producer level, helping the industry progress. Mind you, farm safety isn’t always a hot topic, particularly when it comes to legislation, but I’ve always liked a challenge.

Tell us about your role and what your "typical day" looks like.

A typical day? I still haven’t quite figured out what that looks like. My position is very diverse, which keeps it interesting but can also be quite challenging. I report to a Board of Directors so I am responsible for the organization management and strategic direction; however, I’m also responsible for coordinating the events and projects that fall out of that. My day varies from meetings to project management to on-farm workshops (my favorite!). I cannot live without a planner and to-do lists, otherwise my days would be beyond hectic.

Outside of my job, my evenings and weekends are filled with friends and family, my horse and dog, and extra-curricular activities!

How do you define personal success? What steps do you take to get there?

Personal success is about believing in what you do and continued learning and development – striving to be better than who you were yesterday and contributing to the industry and your community. This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately. Right now I am working on a continued learning and development plan for myself both personally and professionally.

What’s the biggest professional/personal challenge you’ve had to face? And what did you learn from that experience?

This is a tough one for me, but a huge part of who I am. Last year I lost someone to a battle with mental health. Someone I grew up thinking was 10 feet tall and bullet proof – one of my biggest supporters when it came to “anything boys can do, I can do better”. It left me on shaky ground in a way I never thought possible. It was and is a personal challenge, but as we all know our personal self has a huge impact on our professional life.

I learned and continue to learn many lessons from this experience. Work-life balance is extremely important, you need to look after yourself first and asking for help, whether it be on a project or in your life is okay – because it’s okay, not to be on-point 24/7, 365 days of the year! And for those reading this who know me well, I’m still working on this one!

Learning from our mistakes is an important, but sometimes tough, part of life. In the spirit of these profiles helping others, are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?

Oh, where to start with this one… 101 mistakes and counting! I think the majority of mistakes I have made can be connected back to work-life balance. Learning to say no and to set boundaries is the most important thing you can do. I love what I do and am notorious for maybe taking on a little too much at one time. Again, I’m working on it! Knowing your capacity and your limits is important and not setting unrealistic expectations for projects or yourself is crucial.

What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career?

The most burning question I have right now is: “What are the most important things to do for your personal and professional development?” I have a ton of “wants” and “to-dos” for my development but always wonder where my time would be best spent.

What do you think is the most important topic in agriculture right now? Or what should be?

This is a loaded question! I think we need to reflect on what agriculture means to us, how we represent agriculture and what we can do for ourselves to improve the industry.

Public trust is a huge topic right now. I think we need to tell our stories. When I hear some of the doubt that exists in the general public about agriculture I just wish I could take them to meet all of the amazing and passionate farmers that I have the pleasure of working with in my career.

What solutions, tools or processes do you think could be put in place to help advance Canadian women and specifically Canadian women in agriculture?

I think the networks that exist for women in agriculture that are open and supportive are a great venue to help support women in agriculture. Accessible and affordable personal and professional development opportunities are also key.

Do you have a piece of advice for young women starting their career in agriculture?

As you can probably guess by my response to other questions – work-life balance! Number one thing I would tell someone entering their career in agriculture, or any industry for that matter. Learn what work-life balance means to you. It isn’t going to be the same for everyone.

Secondly, although maybe slightly contentious, don’t let being a woman be the only thing that defines you. I am a proud, strong, independent woman but when I show up at work, being a woman isn’t on my radar. Being passionate about what I do is. If you believe in what you do and believe that you are the right person for that job – that’s what matters. And as women, we kick-ass at being passionate about the things we do!

And finally, don’t take things personally, especially the women-related comments or competitions, because they do exist! It’s more of a reflection of who they are, not you. I’m not saying there aren’t boundaries, there most definitely are, so decide what yours are and stick to them!

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