Agriculture is a dynamic industry and farmers know all too well the highs and lows of the sector. Being savvy, quick to adapt, and understanding the business side of agriculture is essential for producers. But agricultural financing can be a tough maze to navigate—that’s where Joanne Prysunka comes in.
As the vice president of ag banking connectFirst Credit Union, Prysunka is there to support farmers and guide them on how to manage the financial side of their operations.
Growing up on a family farm east of Olds, Alberta, Prysunka witnessed firsthand the resiliency of farmers. Her father and uncle were partners on a mixed farm where they managed a feedlot and grain operation. Like any farming operation, there were ups and downs to the business. In the late-80s, high interest rates were rampant throughout the Canadian economy, exceeding 20 per cent. The effects rippled from industry to industry, affecting businesses and people everywhere—and agriculture was no exception.
“That personally affected our family farm. My father and his brother had to make some really difficult decisions about the continuity of the operation. Having to live through that and how it impacted our family and the farm— it just stuck with me,” Prysunka says.
Despite her close ties to agriculture, Prysunka’s professional career actually started in healthcare. After high school, she studied nursing and worked in the field for about a year and a half. Realizing that nursing wasn’t quite the right fit for her, Prysunka pivoted her career path and turned to the business world. She enrolled in the University of Lethbridge’s Bachelor of Management program.
Throughout her career, Prysunka tried out a few different roles—she worked as a small business advisor, then tried commercial real estate, and even dipped her toes in investing. But in the back of her mind, she always recalled the adversities that her father and uncle faced throughout those tough economic times. So, Prysunka returned to agriculture.
“I wanted to understand how in the financial world I could assist producers that may need to navigate through those difficult times,” Prysunka says.
“Seeing the impact on my own family, I wanted to gain knowledge, experience, [and] understand the world of finance, so I would be able to mitigate that kind of risk to family operations like my own.”
Today, as a vice president of connectFirst, Prysunka leads a team of fifteen people, and together, they help Alberta producers and farmers navigate some of the complexities that come with finance. Whether it’s a small family farm or a large-scale agriculture operation, financing can open up a number of opportunities for producers—it can help producers expand their business or help them invest in the latest agtech and equipment to make their operations more efficient. It can even set up the next farming generation for success.
“[Financing] is just one of the many tools in their toolbox—it provides the capital needed to become more productive, to expand, [and] to be able to transition to a new generation or a new ownership structure. And so, it's really a tool available, but how do we use the tool?” Prysunka says.
“That’s our role—to help shape the way in which financing is done.”
While connectFirst provides many financial tools for farmers, Prysunka also highlights the importance of empathy when serving their members—especially throughout these challenging economic times. In some cases, farmers have to make difficult business decisions.
“We really need to walk alongside [farmers], examine all options, and do so without judgment,” Prysunka says.
“As a financial partner, our jobs are really to look objectively at the options, pull in other experts that can assist them with their financial situation, and look at things differently to maintain the operation, grow it, or sometimes wind it down.”
These tough financial decisions can have a heavy emotional toll on producers—something Prysunka understands very well. Prysunka is also a strong advocate for the Rural Mental Health Project, an initiative dedicated to providing mental health access to the rural population.
“These have been difficult times for all of us through COVID—and the agriculture community is no different. We have to be mindful of the fact that these very resilient individuals also need help at times,” Prysunka says.
No matter what the economic climate looks like, Prysunka and her team are dedicated to supporting the farmers and producers of Alberta—through thick and thin.
“Many of our team members, they are farmers and producers themselves. They really understand how agriculture can be in terms of risk and reward,” Prysunka says.
“It’s probably the best point in my career to be part of this team and serve the communities that we're in.”