When Sarah Polnik graduated from the renewable resources program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) last year, she says she envisioned herself working in the field with soil, plants and insects, and carrying out tests to determine water quality.
However, like many new grads, her summer internship experience put her on a slightly different path than she had planned.
“For me, going to work knowing that, in my little way, I am helping people and animals around the world enjoy food makes my life feel like it has some purpose.”
—Sarah Polnik, operations management trainee, Cargill
Polnik, 24, started her career with Cargill as a summer student and she is now an operations management trainee in Carseland, Alta., about an hour south east of Calgary.
As an operations management trainee, she is responsible for carrying out all basic operations of a country elevator/farm supply business.
In the trainee program, Polnik is learning all aspects of elevator management, primarily through on-the-job training in grain grading, inventory management of grain and farm supplies, accounting procedures, customer service skills, scheduling, planning repair and maintenance, environment, health and safety processes and the grain and farm supply industry in Canada.
Q. What do you do in your current job?
A. I am involved in many different activities each day, such as receiving and shipping grain, loading rail cars, looking at sample results. One of my big projects is falling number results (a test used to determine the quality of grain). I am in charge of making up grain samples and sending them away to the grain quality analysis centre for falling numbers. Once I get the results, I input them into a table to see how our numbers are shaping up. I am also the one who balances the shipments and receiving logs.
You might ask what does this have to do with renewable resources or an environmental school program? Well, in many ways it is relevant. In school, I learned about soils, water quality, insects and plants. All of these are what farmers deal with on daily basis.
One thing that has made me feel like my education is coming in handy is they have allowed me to start a recycling program in which I take all of the cardboard, recyclable containers, paper, etc., to a facility where it can be properly disposed of. I have also been asked to think up ideas to make the elevator more energy efficient. So, I may not get to work out in the field, but I do get to attempt to reduce the footprint of this particular elevator.
The people here are great to work with and I get to meet a lot of farmers and other Cargill employees from different sites.
Q. What made you choose to start your career with Cargill?
A. I was walking through the hallways at school and saw the job posting for a summer student at Cargill. I applied and went for the interview, and I was later contacted with a job offer. When I started, the pay was much higher than anything in the environmental field and there was the possibility of full-time employment after the summer was over. This was a big incentive for me to try to make this job work – with the recession, there were not many summer jobs that would offer full-time employment.
Once I got into the operations management trainee position, the benefits, pension plan and the people I work with were quite nice and all of that just made me want to stay with Cargill.
Q. What was the onboarding process like when you first started at Cargill?
A. The onboarding process was and is pretty amazing. I receive training on anything that is relevant to operations activities. Everyone I work with is more than willing to help out if I do not understand something. The guys I work with are easy to talk to and willing to help me out with any dilemmas that pop up.
Since I have never been in a managerial role before, they have supplied me with tools, like books to read, and will give me pointers on how to better manage situations. Pretty soon I will be heading to Winnipeg to get trained on grain grading by the experts, which will help me out drastically.
Coming from not knowing the difference between red winter and red spring wheat four months ago, to being able to spot the two if they were mixed together, makes me feel like I have learned something that helps me in my career.
Q. What is one thing that surprised you about the agriculture industry once you graduated and started working full-time?
A. Bringing in grain and shipping it is not a simple task. You can look at a sample and grade it, yet it will not meet standards that are set. Right now there is a lot of feed wheat out there and just grading it by looking at it is no longer enough. We have to send it away for falling numbers.
What is a falling number? Well, in my own words, it is a scientific experiment that is conducted to see how well the grain would work for milling purposes. Who would ever think that you could not just look at grain and decide if it is good quality or not.
So, for me, the agriculture industry is actually much more scientifically based then I ever thought it was. It is quite amazing. Even all the new varieties of seed that are out there that can better withstand short growing seasons or pests – all of these advancements came through because of science.
Q. What advice do you have for students a few years behind you who are interested in careers in agriculture?
A. Keep on top of the scientific advancements, and also do not put blinders on and think that agriculture is separate from everything else. Far from it. Look at all the cities that keep expanding and taking away prime farm land or the crazy weather that has been happening, or even how politics plays a role in it. It is so integrated into other aspects of the world that I had never even thought of. I would recommend broadening your outlook. What you will find out is amazing and makes the industry very appealing to work in.
Q. What else should students know about careers in agriculture, or starting their careers with Cargill as new grads?
A. It is a lot of fun. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys hard work and getting to see the benefits of their work. Without agriculture there would be no food for the people and animals of this world. For me, going to work knowing that, in my little way, I am helping people and animals around the world enjoy food makes my life feel like it has some purpose.
Cargill is a wonderful company to start and further advance your career as they are willing to help you achieve your goals and exceed even your own expectations.
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