Faces of Avena: Kenna Chen

Meet Kenna Chen, Grower Relations and Procurement Administrator, at Avena’s Rowatt, SK facility. Avena farmers know her well. She is the person they call with questions on contracts and grain receipts. Kenna also tracks and documents grain movement from the farm, through Rowatt, to other Avena facilities. She ensures Avena complies with provincial and national regulatory agency requirements. Her meticulous paperwork and active communication with farmers are essential to the success of Avena’s vision to partner for safe, healthy diets and a sustainable world.

What is your top priority in your role at Avena?

Tracking pulse and oat ingredients from the farm, through the cleaning process and on to the mill. Every time a farmer pulls up with a load, I follow the movement of the raw material from truck to bin to facility, make inventory adjustment and month end inventory reports. To meet the demands of Avena’s Purity Protocol system for gluten-free oats, we record the variety of grain, the farm it came from, whether its organic or conventional. Each time the oats are transferred from one bin to another, our electronic documentation reflects that move. It’s highly detailed for traceability. It is also cross-checked manually with shipping and receiving.

What happens when inventory leave Rowatt?

Inventory is clearly tracked across Rowatt, Regina and Portage la Prairie facilities. We recently introduced a new system that follows movement of product across all of our facilities.  It has been both challenging and exciting to set up. We had to design a whole new reporting system – but now that it’s established, inventory is very easy to chase. Combining all the facilities into a single system made my job more complicated. But it is more focused and organized as well. It’s also beneficial for management to be able to see the big picture at any given moment.

What brought you to Avena?

Well, it’s funny, because my education is in Hospitality and Tourism Management, but I never really worked in that field after graduating from university. My work background is in international trading, first in China and then in Calgary. I came to Canada as a skilled worker in 2006. My introduction to agriculture came when I took a job in farmland purchasing and moved to Saskatchewan. In my role at Avena, I am able to combine and use all of my previous experience.

What has been your path since starting at Avena?

I started at Best Cooking Pulses [which amalgamated with Avena in 2018] in logistics, then worked in Food Safety and Accounting. As a result of the recent reorganization to unite operations for our three facilities, I now focus on procurement for both pulses and oats. I like working with numbers and computers, so I enjoy concentrating on documentation that is required to support purchasing for the Rowatt plants.

Do you work directly with farmers?

I communicate with farmers about purchase contracts, make the grain receipts and send them out for payment. If there are any questions or concerns from the farmers about their contracts or receipts, then I talk to them and figure out solutions. If we need to talk for a long time, we do.

We have been doing business with most of our growers for many years and know each other pretty well. If they deliver their own grain, I sometimes chat with them and answer questions while their grain is being unloaded.

Do you have a farm background personally?

I met a lot of farmers when I worked in farmland purchasing. But I gained a deep appreciation for farm life when I lived on a grain farm in Saskatchewan for a time. It’s totally different from city life. And it’s not easy.

Peas and lentils were the main crops on the farm I lived on. During seeding season, you get up early and work until late at night. Sometimes you don’t want it to rain too early in the spring. And then you rush to finish up seeding. And then after seeding maybe you want some rain, but it doesn’t rain. After seeding, there’s spraying if you’re a conventional farmer, and checking the crop regularly. Then harvest. Sometimes you cannot even finish the harvest before it gets too cold. You are always at the mercy of the weather and struggling to find laborers. You really need to work hard to get the return.

What’s the best thing about working at Avena?

Work is work. But how you feel in the working environment is what makes it a good place to work. This is a nice community of people who communicate well with one another. We operate as a close team.

There is a helpful attitude here that I really appreciate. It is reflected at work and outside the office as well. Once, my colleagues had to pull my car out of the ditch. It was winter and it was so dark and blowing snow. When I made the turn off the highway to the plant I actually drove right into the ditch and completely missed the road. And I thought what the heck? Where am I? I was just stuck there. After I called the plant, Morgan [Gallais, Plant Manager] and another colleague from the plant came and dug the snow to pull me out. I found out later that I was not the only one who got into the ditch around those corners. The boys at the facility, including Mike [Gallais, Director of Procurement, General Manager Rowatt], like to help if any of the office staff have mechanical problems with our vehicles.

I feel like I have friends around, like we are always helping each other. I like coming to work with these people.

What do you think Avena does really well?

In the eight years that I’ve been here, things have changed quite a lot. It’s always improving, reaching for a higher level. Food safety is a good example. We have always had very high standards, particularly for our Purity Protocol oats. Still, I can see the company constantly improving, re-organizing and striving for better. This applies to equipment upgrades and expansion in the plants as well. We built an oat cleaning plant at Rowatt a couple of years ago. And now we are building an oat mill in Rowatt. Once that’s done, we’ll be ready to expand business again. All these changes lower our costs while improving our production, service and quality levels.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love reading novels and relaxing by the pool in the summer. Last year, the heat was not good to the farmers, but I was happy to have many good days for outdoor swimming. Sometimes I go fishing with friends. Now that travel restrictions from the pandemic are lifting, I am looking forward to my mom coming from China for an extended visit.