Retiring Soy Canada head had storied career

Glacier FarmMedia – Few people have a Fidel Castro story.

Ron Davidson has two.

Davidson met Castro in the 1980s, when he traveled to Cuba with former agriculture minister Eugene Whelan.

Davidson was working in a newly formed market development division in Agriculture Canada. He was responsible for expanding trade with Latin America and the Caribbean, and had organized a trip to Cuba.

A planned meeting with President Castro was delayed. So, Whelan’s group attended a reception at the Canadian embassy in Havana. When they returned to their guest home that evening, things looked different.

“We came back to the house (and) it was surrounded by military equipment,” Davidson said. “We went into the house and they (Cuban military) pulled down all the blinds. We sat down and in came Fidel with his group.”

Castro dressed as expected, with his Fidel-style hat and a khaki army shirt. Davidson was surprised by Castro’s understanding of farming and Canada’s role in Cuban agriculture.

“He knew a lot about it. The dairy herd down there was built on Canadian genetics, and the swine herd,” Davidson said. “He was quite knowledgeable about that…. He was either well-briefed or just knew it.”

The next day, Whelan, Davidson and others had an itinerary, including stops at Cuban farms. Davidson’s car had a flat tire, so his group missed one stop and skipped ahead to the next — a dairy farm owned by Ramon Castro, Fidel’s older brother.

Davidson chatted with Ramon for nearly an hour while they waited for Whelan’s group to arrive.

“Ramon and I sat on the side of a hill (as a herd of Canadian Holstein cattle grazed in the field)… He smoked a foot-long cigar. I drank yogurt that they were producing on the farm and he told me jokes about his brother (Fidel).”

Davidson didn’t share the jokes, likely because he knows a thing or two about diplomacy. For much of the last 50 years, he has represented Canada and Canadian agriculture around the globe.

Davidson began his career with Agriculture Canada in June, 1971. At the end of April, he retired from his position as executive director of Soy Canada — at the age of 72.

It’s difficult to list all the jobs that Davidson held during his 50-year career in agriculture, trade and foreign relations, but he travelled to more than 35 countries for work with the departments of foreign affairs, agriculture and international trade:

  • He spent more than 15 years at Canadian embassies around the globe, including Japan, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Riyadh, where he served as Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman in the 2000s.
  • He served as consul general at the Canadian consulate in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
  • While at the department of international trade, Davidson was responsible for trade development activities in 99 countries in Latin America, Caribbean, Middle East and Africa.
  • He also learned to speak French, Spanish and Portuguese during his time abroad.
  • For the last decade, while in his 60s, Davidson worked in government relations and international trade for the Canadian Meat Council.
  • He served as executive director of Soy Canada since 2017.

That’s a decent resumé for someone who grew up on a small dairy and egg farm south of Ottawa and had no plans for a career in government, trade or international relations.

“When I joined Ag Canada, I thought I would be in inspection and enforcement my entire career,” he said. “Things just happen… Opportunities came up and I took them.”

First job

In 1971, Davidson graduated from MacDonald College, the agricultural school at McGill University. He was planning to get a master’s degree but Agriculture Canada offered him a job in inspection and enforcement, a department that would become the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

However, in 1974, there was a flood in Quebec and eastern Ontario. Ag Canada needed employees to manage a support program for farmers and Davidson was appointed to the team.

Because of that work, he developed a relationship with people in the deputy minister’s office. They suggested he take a job at the House of Commons as a liaison between the agriculture department and minister Whelan.

A big part of Davidson’s new job was preparing Whelan for media scrums and question period.

“Which meant every morning… (guessing) what on earth questions they would be asking today of the minister,” he said. “Then calling in the department, or all over Canada, (to figure) how we would answer this question, if it came up.”

Davidson spent many days and evenings in the House of Commons’ gallery, in case Whelan needed assistance. It was decades before texting, so the minister would send a House page up to the gallery with a question for Davidson.

“I would go out in the hallway, phone somebody and try and get an answer…. Scribble an answer down and send it back down to him (Whelan).”

Davidson did that for three years, until an opportunity came up in Washington, D.C. He worked in the agriculture section at the Canadian embassy for three years in the late 1970s.

That was followed by a job back in Ottawa, where he was part of a market development team at Agriculture Canada, building demand for Canadian agriculture products in Mexico, Cuba and elsewhere.

Paris, Washington, Tokyo and Sao Paolo

During his stint in Ottawa, Davidson got a phone call from someone at the Canadian embassy in Paris, offering him a job.

He spent four years in Paris, working on market access for Canadian agri-products and had a major success with bison. It took most of his four years, but Davidson convinced French officials to allow imports of live bison and bison meat from Canada.

Davidson, who spoke French at the embassy and while working in Paris, spent a great deal of time with the bureaucrats in France’s agriculture ministry. His face was so familiar inside the building he even got invited to staff parties.

After Paris, Davidson returned to Washington and then moved to Tokyo, where he was at the embassy for five years. He was responsible for trade in agriculture, seafood and consumer products with Japan and had another success — opening the market to Canadian tomatoes.

“They (Canadian officials) had been trying for five years, before I got there, to get greenhouse tomatoes (from Canada) into Japan,” he said. “I worked a lot on that too.”

His next stint overseas was Sao Paolo. He served as Canadian consul general in the Brazilian city of 12 million people for several years in the early 2000s

In 2007, Davidson became Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. His wife, Marcia, moved with him to all of his overseas postings, except Riyadh, because she couldn’t accept the restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia.

If movies and television shows can be trusted, the life of an ambassador looks glamourous — by day, presenting Inuit carvings and other gifts to presidents and prime ministers; at night, fancy galas with shrimp cocktails and tuxedos.

In reality, it’s long days and nights of work.

“The functions happen mostly in the evening…. Frankly, it wasn’t uncommon to have two events to (attend) in an evening,” Davidson said. “That is work. It’s networking and it’s learning. Because your job there is to learn. What’s going on in the country? Make new contacts, find new opportunities.”

Long hours are a normal part of the job when working at an embassy on the other side of the world.

“In Tokyo… we had phone calls with Ottawa in the middle of the night,” he said.

In 2009, after months of effort, Davidson and his team re-opened the Saudi market to Canadian beef, which had been closed because of BSE.

It was a big deal. Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz flew to Riyadh to make the announcement.

Following Saudi Arabia, Davidson wasn’t out of work for long. The Canadian Wheat Board hired him as a government liaison in Ottawa.

He held that position for only a couple of years because the Conservative government ultimately dissolved the wheat board.

Davidson quickly adjusted, moving on to an organization with the longest name in Canada’s agri-food sector — the Canadian Meat Council, Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council and Further Poultry Processors Association. He then worked for the Meat Council and joined Soy Canada in 2017.

Work ethic

Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs with the Canadian Pork Council, became friends with Davidson when he was with the meat council. They worked in the same building in Ottawa and Davidson was well known for his lunchtime routine.

“You could always find him at 12:30, every day,” Stordy said. “You could find him walking to his favourite restaurant, Subway, to (get) a foot-long sub. He basically works through his lunch. And the only break he has is when he walks to Subway.”

Davidson left the meat council and took a job with Soy Canada, probably because its office is closer to Subway, Stordy joked.

Jim Laws, former executive director at the meat council, was surprised to hear that Davidson is stepping away from Soy Canada.

“Ron’s retiring?” said Laws. “He’s a workhorse…. He wasn’t always the first one in the office. But he was always the last one out.”

What’s next?

Marcia, Davidson’s wife, has family in New Brunswick and they own an acre of land on a lake. Half is in New Brunswick and the other half in Maine.

It’s hard to imagine that Davidson will spend his time idle, sitting in a fishing boat with a beer in hand.

He plans to care for the flowers and trees on the property, which will take him back to his roots. He studied agronomy at McGill and was hoping to become a plant breeder.

Asked if he’ll stay retired, Davidson dodged the question and then launched into a promotional spiel about soybeans and how the crop has a bright future in Western Canada — possibly because that’s his way. He loves to talk about work.

So, 50 years of work in agriculture, trade and foreign relations may not be enough for Davidson.

“I don’t know. I still enjoy work,” he said.

“I come from a small farm, and the only thing I ever learned how to do is work.”

This article was originally published at The Western Producer.