Up and Coming Poultry Professionals

An insightful and entertaining conversation with three up and coming young female poultry professionals who share the highs and lows of their chosen profession. Meet Rachelle Davidson, Technical Services Lead at Maple Leaf Foods Jesse Hunter, Field Service Representative at Maple Leaf Foods and Daniella Batres, Agricultural Programs Coordinator, Alberta Turkey Producers and Alberta Hatching Egg producers.
Meet Rachelle Davidson, Technical Services Lead at Maple Leaf Foods, Jesse Hunter, Field Service Representative at Maple Leaf Foods and Daniella Batres, Agricultural Programs Coordinator, Alberta Turkey Producers and Alberta Hatching Egg producers.

You all represent U of A students that have made the leap from poultry student to industry professional. What challenges have you encountered bridging academic life to the real world?

JH- Field work is very different from academic work. What you do on-farm is at a much smaller scale. We do trials with a sample size of 30 rather than 3000. That would not be acceptable at university. You can’t control the variables, so you just do your best. 

RD – Research is almost a niche environment, but when you move into industry you are talking about real people, animals, consequences, livelihoods, and that affects the way you can conduct and interpret a lot of analysis. It’s not just an isolated finding anymore and the findings all have consequences. That’s totally different from the inside of academia and school. 

JH – I was one of the lucky people because I worked with commercial farms while doing my masters. Even then it was more academic – for example I would foot-score 200 birds on-farm whereas now I would score 30. I do feel lucky because it gave me a feel for industry and what it’s like to go on-farm and deal with a producer. 

RD- My first job after graduation was working as an animal technician at the PRC. What I got from that job was actual hands-on, tangible farm management. I pretty much became a farmer for two and a half years. And that made my transition into industry a lot easier. I shovelled chicken poop, picked eggs, got chased by roosters, dealt with mice and water leakage. It also made me comfortable to work directly with the farmer, physically do things and that has helped me build strong relationships with my industry partners. 

DB- The biggest challenge that I have experienced, both with my masters and going into a new job is how to figure out how to do something new, often with no guidance. When Covid happened, I had to teach myself SAS. Going into this job, it’s a similar process, you just teach yourself. I guess that’s just like everything in agriculture, though, if something breaks down, you figure out how to fix it. It’s a struggle but it’s also a good skill. 

RD – During my first position at Maple Leaf (Animal Health and Welfare Technician), they were just starting the new animal care programs and on-farm auditing and we had to create the audit. I had to learn all these codes and then my previous boss said, great, you did the research, now start writing. I opened Word and just started typing. It all started from nothing, but now it exists, and we have this tool.  

JH- Another thing about going from university to industry – you can feel like you know a lot coming out of school, but you need to be open about the things you don’t know. There’s so much stuff that the producer knows that I didn’t learn in school. You can’t come out to farm with an ivory tower attitude. 

What are some of the on-the ground challenges in your jobs? 

JH – Everybody struggles with change, especially in animal welfare and it’s not because they aren’t doing a good job, it’s the opposite. They feel they already care about their animals, take good care of them, why change? I understand their reservations – you have to work at developing a relationship. 

RD – In the field you are there in a business relationship and if the producers have a problem, they want a business solution. You need to remember during those interactions that this is their livelihood – everything affects their family and while wanting a solution, they don’t want to be told what to do. I try to meet them person to person – put the business aside and connect on a human level. Rather than two people fighting, you are working together to solve the problem. Better cohesion that ultimately brings a solution to both us and the farmer. 

DB- When it comes to business decisions, I am learning a lot about communication and compromise which is an interesting part of my job. Sometimes seeing the big picture can be difficult. 

Have you experienced any issues as women in this field? 

JH- Sometimes it’s the realization that I am the only woman on the entire premises of a commercial barn! 

RD – We work in a primarily male dominated industry. Also, we happen to be young. There hasn’t been a lot of change in field servicing for a very, very long time. We are at the forefront of change, and we are very different from the people we are replacing. There are cultural difficulties with some producers holding a more traditional view of women’s role in business. They won’t look at me, they don’t talk to me face-to-face, they will call my boss literally right in front of me while I’m standing there.  This is a huge area that I have had to overcome. I have made some compromises in the way I present myself. I don’t wear makeup in the field anymore because makeup helps discredit my knowledge. Whether I like it or not, I have come to accept this. 

This is disheartening. I had hoped that women had made more progress in the 21st century.

RD – It seems to be getting better slowly –for example, a lot of poultry vets now are young women. We are in a very niche part of the industry but if you look at the bigger picture, collectively, there has been a lot of change. Lots of female representation on the boards and three out of the four general managers are women. Most of the offices are all women. 

On the other side, what are some rewards of the job? What do you love about your work? 

DB – I finally get a paycheque! Lol! Speaking one on one to producers on the phone or over zoom and helping them is something I really enjoy. We don’t have a lot in common but there is always something you can find and latch on to and start building a relationship. 

JH- I appreciate the new experiences – getting to see things that I don’t think a lot of people will ever see, such as catches. Being an advocate for catchers and producers – being able to help them feels good. I also love the birds – I believe that if I am helping them have the best life possible while they are here, that shows respect for the meat that we are consuming. 

RD- I feel nourished by my work. It can be taxing working in industry because you always need to be on, but that’s also what I enjoy. I love being part of the health plans and health care of these animals. I love that every day is different, and I love to connect with people and have face-to-face conversations. I care about them, and I care about their animals. 

Do you have any tips for students that are still in school or newly graduated and hoping to find work in the poultry industry? What is the job situation like? 

JH – The jobs are there but it’s a word-of-mouth industry and it can be hard to get that initial bump. The networking component in this industry is vital. Go to a conference and walk up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself. Sit at a table and strike up a conversation. Tell them you are interested in what they do. It’s such a valuable skill – you make connections, and it shows that you are willing to take those steps and able to converse with people. That’s a big thing in the poultry industry – everyone loves to talk!

RD- If I go to a conference and a student approaches me, I don’t forget that person. When we are posting for a job and names are coming in, I remember that this person was willing to talk to me. It’s an important soft skill and it stands out. That’s something you can’t teach. If you are willing to do the scary things, put yourself out there, make yourself seen, you will be remembered. Once you are in, you’re in and it’s a lot easier to find work. 

DB- I did a lot of informational interviews, just as excuses to talk to people. In undergrad I did it with people in industry and during my masters, I did it more with people from abroad because working there is a goal of mine. With covid and all the virtual events, I could connect people to do the interviews and practice my Spanish at the same time. 

Innovations. Anything coming down the pike in your industries that you are excited about?

JH- Maple Leaf is testing out several enrichments for broiler barns and they have them in quite a few barns in Ontario. They have been shipped to Alberta now and we are going to start implementing them into some participating barns. They allow the birds to express natural behaviours like pecking and hiding and perching and it adds a lot to the bird’s experience, health, and welfare. 

Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent conversation. Can you tell me about the picture?

The Hen Party: Jesse, Daniella, Rachelle, Amber Dobson and Zahra Folinsbee

RD –We are all close friends and we all met each other at the PRC. Like-minded people, all women, connecting at a similar point in each other’s lives, and we just clicked. 

JH- There is a lot of humour when we get together – you take things as they come and laugh and it’s great to have women in your corner who understand. 

DB – I feel so lucky to have our group of friends. Shared experiences even in our different fields and stages of life. Friends for life. 

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