Video: Consul trades field for factories

Canada’s consul general | Former soil conservation specialist now deals with trade issues

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Jamshed Merchant might work in a glass and steel tower in the downtown core of a great American city, but he isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with farmers’ issues.

It’s something he’s been doing both literally and metaphorically for decades on both sides of the border.

Merchant is Canada’s consul general in Minneapolis, overseeing an office that promotes Canada-U.S. trade in the region and assists Canadians living in and travelling to the region.

His former career as a soil scientist might not at first glance have been a good background for the consul job, but he says the two positions are a good fit.

“In many ways it’s not that different,” said Merchant.

“This job is the same kind of thing.”

Merchant, who became consul general in 2012, was educated in Britain, began his Canadian career as a professor of geography at Montreal’s McGill university in 1979 and became an Alberta environment department soil reclamation specialist in 1983.

He expanded that role as a soil conservation specialist in Alberta and Saskatchewan for Agriculture Canada from 1985 to 2001, worked for the federal Treasury Board and in 2008 became assistant deputy minister of Agriculture Canada’s Agri-Environment Services Branch.

As a soil conservation specialist, he worked mostly in extension, taking what in the 1980s and 1990s was still a new and novel concept to farmers across the Prairies.

Those years of working one-on-one with farmers in their own local areas are something he believes helps him deal with the nitty gritty of complicated trade and investment issues that emerge in Canada-U.S. relations.

“For me as a (soil) conservationist, I couldn’t stay in my office and do my job,” said Merchant.

“I was out meeting people, sitting around the kitchen table, being in somebody’s field talking to them. This is the same kind of thing. I may not be in a field with somebody, but I’m in their factory or their office.”

The Minneapolis consulate covers Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas, which are tightly connected to the western Canadian farm economy, especially Manitoba.

That brings the consulate into frequent agriculture-based discussions and consultations, dealing with issues as varied as country-of-origin labelling and beefed-up border security controls.

The consulate has a dedicated agriculture commissioner who specializes in farm and food-based trade and investment questions, but Merchant’s agriculture background allows him to also get intimately involved.

Issues can be farm-based or large scale, such as those faced by major companies like Cargill and General Mills, both of which are based in Minneapolis.

Merchant said farmers who have questions, need information or are facing problems with cross-border trade can directly contact his consulate.

“Our job is to know who’s who, who to talk to, when to talk (to them), what kind of things would be affected.”

With $44 billion in two-way Canada-U.S. agriculture and food trade, there are lots of places where problems can occur.

However, Merchant said the similarity of the Canadian Prairies to the U.S. Midwest helps make resolving them easier.

“Talking to people in small communities in the Midwest is very much like talking to people in small communities in the Prairies,” he said.

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