Seed World

How Karen Churchill is Leading the Way to a Sustainable Future


The role of the modern CEO has evolved to encompass a wide range of responsibilities that extend beyond traditional business functions. A CEO is now expected to be a visionary, a crisis manager, an innovator and a leader. Seed World Canada has selected six CEOs for our list of the top boardroom leaders of the year. Here’s the first entry.

In an industry where innovation and adaptability are key, having visionary leaders at the helm is crucial. One such leader who has been making waves is Karen Churchill, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio. Churchill’s dedication to fostering innovation, supporting clusters, and driving the development of markets for Canadian products has set her apart.

Ag-West Bio, a nonprofit organization, has a unique mission. It focuses on identifying and nurturing early-stage innovations in agriculture, taking on more risk to support projects that have the potential to transform the industry, she says.

One of the highlights of Ag-West Bio’s recent work is its support for the Diverse Field Crops Cluster (DFCC). The project included eight high-potential crops: hemp, carinata, camelina, mustard, sunflower, canary seed, flax and quinoa. She notes: “These small crops can’t support large R&D projects on their own. They don’t all have checkoff money; they don’t have big markets developed for them. But by banding together, they could attract bigger investment.”

This approach helps these niche crops get the attention and investment they need to thrive.

What prompted Churchill and Ag-West Bio to take up the challenge of supporting these crops?

“What we do does come with risk. For us, it is very much about sustainability and providing options in what’s going to be the most attractive in a climate change scenario. But the odds are in our favour in bolstering crops that are perfect for cultivating sustainability.” she said.

Churchill’s mission is to ensure that these crops become viable and remain part of the agricultural landscape. One of the key factors in this endeavour is developing markets for products and ingredients.

“It’s not just about growing these crops; it’s about creating demand and ensuring that farmers have a reason to cultivate them. You need to make sure that it is an economically viable crop so that it stays in the rotation.”

Qualifications as a Top CEO:

  1. She can steer the ship through rough waters: Churchill took the helm at Ag-West Bio just before the onset of COVID-19. Under her leadership, the company successfully pivoted to address the reality of the pandemic, including significant changes, such as hiring new staff and introducing new strategies and tactics. Her ability to lead during these trying times underscores her resilience and adaptability.
  2. She can help an organization stay relevant: Under Churchill’s leadership, the company went on an ‘identity quest’. This meant forming new partnerships and spearheading new initiatives, such as a new incubator at Innovation Place — the Global Agri-Food Advancement Partnership.
  3. She can reinvigorate a brand: Her leadership extended to refreshing the Ag-West Bio brand by determining what differentiates the organization from others. This illustrates her strategic thinking and commitment to the organization’s long-term success.
  4. She encourages discussion and debate: A key characteristic of Churchill’s leadership is her openness to healthy discussion and debate. This willingness to engage in constructive dialogue fosters an environment where staff members can actively participate and share their ideas. It also helps prevent “groupthink,” where decision-making is influenced by conformity rather than critical thinking.