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L-R Jessica Solanki, Connor Watson and Mark Lepp.
L-R Jessica Solanki, Connor Watson and Mark Lepp.
December 21, 2023

Leaders rarely lobby to replace themselves. A democratic process is required to limit terms, to ensure new perspectives, to train up the executive suite.


The Harvard Business Review, in a January 2022 article “Reinventing your leadership team,” states what’s expected of leaders today.


“We used to expect, for instance, that leaders could be either great visionaries or great operators. No longer. Companies now need their top people to perform both roles—to be strategic executors, in other words. They’re also expected to be tech-savvy humanists, high-integrity politicians, humble heroes, globally minded localists, and traditioned innovators.”


Associations are not corporations primed for profit. Nonetheless, they’re complex legal entities that must navigate their way through dynamic personalities and politics at municipal, provincial and federal levels while driving toward strategic goals. The Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO) is no stranger to this terrain. Born in 1947, the Association represents 500 growers and a $112 million/year industry that’s intertwined with agri-tourism areas across the province:  Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore, Prince Edward County and Georgian Bay.


Despite its many achievements to date, the Association still faces the need to reinvent itself in a competitive world. Again, from the Harvard Business Review, “traditioned innovators use the past to help direct success while creating a forward-focussed culture that allows for innovating, failure, learning and growth.”


For the GGO, it was important to reimagine the future after COVID. Part of that strategic plan was launching the Next-Generation Committee in spring 2023. Under the leadership of Debbie Zimmerman, GGO CEO, the association secured provincial funding for skills development including a transition planning workshop, leadership training, a public speaking and social media workshop, and media training. As opportunities present, members of the Next-Generation committee are invited to conferences and events, and when possible, help to staff the GGO booth.


“Several Next Gen committee members have participated in government meetings to represent the future of the industry in the context of the modernization of alcohol retailing in Ontario,” says Zimmerman, a political veteran herself, having served two terms as the regional chair of the Region of Niagara. “Their perspectives were well received.”


At press time, the Ontario government announced that beer, wine and cider sales will be allowed at convenience stores and other outlets no later than 2026. Zimmerman, now a seasoned CEO for 20 years, has astutely invited these young growers to key meetings for more than good optics. Their authentic stories have helped to sell politicians that there is long-term viability for the sector.


This announcement comes at an important juncture for Jessica Solanki, chair of the Next-Generation Committee. She’s accustomed to a faster pace of technology adoption, analyzing progress in weeks and months, not years. Still, the legislative timetable set out by the Ontario government is welcome encouragement.  


Solanki wasn’t always on the path of returning to the family farm, Huebel Grape Estates, which owns 230 acres of vineyards near Niagara-on-the-Lake and custom operates another 500 acres. She graduated from Brock University’s Oenology and Viticulture program in 2021. She then did a stint in winemaking at Stratus Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake.  And now makes wine for the family virtual winery, Liebling Wines.


“I loved the lab and technology advances,” she recalls, but came to recognise that her passion was back on the home farm. With leadership in her genes -- her father Matthias Oppenlaender is the current GGO chair – she’s now a vineyard manager at the farm.


As part of the Gen Z cohort, she grew up in the digital age. Her background spotlights both a technical bent and commitment to change, with an enthusiasm that ranges far afield.


“Most of all, I want to attract people who do not have generational land,” she says.


This last sentiment reveals her sense that the 20 people on the Next-Gen Committee want to reach beyond their usual circle to become more inclusive. To such end, she and other Committee members participate in schoolroom talks as well as Brock University and Niagara College. She’s keen to communicate her passion regarding the multitude of careers available in the grape and wine industry.


Connor Watson, another Next-Gen member, holds the same view. He’s completed the second harvest since his return to Watson Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree majoring in food and agriculture at the University of Guelph.


“I see lots of opportunities for individuals who do not come from a farming background, whether it’s in winemaking, marketing, research or lab technician work,” he says. “The demographics of current farmers opens the door for vineyard management roles.”


Regarding his Next-Gen Committee membership: “It’s a good tool to expand the phone book and reach out to other growers.”


Fellow committee member Mark Lepp, agrees: “It’s important to know your own village.” He’s keen to find out the stories of other growers and what’s happening in the community.


Looking beyond the Niagara area, he says. “Politically, we’re the next generation the government will be dealing with.”   


2023 has been a pivotal year for GGO. These next-gen, mobile-first leaders are in a hurry, equipped with not only agronomic skills but the emotional energy to advocate industry change far beyond their own farmgate.


Jessica Solanki looks to next-generation challenges

In this Digging Deeper podcast, The Grower is speaking with Jessica Solanki. The Grape Growers of Ontario is planning for the future by sponsoring a Next-Generation Committee. Jessica, chair of the committee, shares how they are developing leadership skills, advocating for ag careers and communicating about impacts of government policy on their generation. Sponsored by Cohort Wholesale.  LISTEN HERE >>



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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 21 December 2023