Farmers have always been green — no matter the production model or cropping system, technology has been at the center of agriculture for generations. Moving forward, unlocking sustainable solutions and improving yields in agriculture will require increasingly diverse skill sets from teams of highly-motivated individuals.
The significant yields that diversity in the workplace offers, along with an emphasis on inclusion in agriculture, undoubtedly results in a strong, more innovative industry. However, success in the agricultural sector means selecting the most robust set of diverse candidates: ones who have a passion for agriculture, a willingness to learn, an appreciation for what everyone brings to the table, and an aptitude for communicating with and including others.
One ag-tech company, AgBiome, is finding success with two first-generation female agriculturalists on the team: Mariebeth Marsh, director of insights and experience, and Laura Potter, chief science officer.
It all starts with plants: A passion for agronomy
Marsh didn’t grow up in agriculture. She wasn’t a member of the FFA or 4-H. There was no ag program at the school, yet Marsh notes that she was always interested in agriculture. In Indiana, surrounded by row crops, agriculture was everywhere. She may not have known it then, but now, Marsh said, “I’m an agronomist by nature.”
It wasn’t until high school that she met the county extension agent who introduced her to agriculture through the county’s Growth in Agriculture Through Education (GATE) program. Through her newfound mentor, Marsh discovered just why she had a calling toward agronomy.
“I went to Purdue for one of their ag days, and I attended a plant DNA class. It just blew my mind,” Marsh said.
With the help of her extension agent, Marsh decided she wanted to major in agronomic business with marketing. Attending Purdue University, she took every class she could get her hands on: soil typing, growing fungi, business, and marketing.
The thing about working in agriculture is that things are constantly evolving. “You have the opportunity to go from role to role to role,” Marsh said.
After spending 16 years at one company where she went from answering telephone calls to running her territory, Marsh found that her career trajectory meant understanding that her skills and experiences could elevate her even further.
“Breaking out of traditional trajectories for us can be very daunting, but I think for me, it was a huge point of freedom to make my own path with the skills that I’d learned with different companies and positions I’d worked in,” Marsh said.
Part of appreciating agriculture for Marsh is sharing that passion and knowledge with others.
“If you ate today, thank a farmer,” she said. “There’s such a disconnect between where the food comes from and how it gets to our plates for many folks who live in the city. I had some great opportunities to learn and pursue my career. So, that passion for agriculture is something I really like to help share with other people who may not have that same opportunity.”
There’s math in agriculture, and that’s where it started
Agriculture was the heartbeat of Potter’s home state of Iowa. But, it was math that initially got her blood pumping.
“Every since I was little, I always loved math, and it’s something I always wanted to do in school. It really excited me,” Potter said.
Attending school at Drake University, Potter initially thought she’d be a math professor. It was applied mathematics that eventually grabbed hold.
“A professor from N.C. State came recruiting, and I happened to go to his seminar on mathematical modeling,” reminisced Potter. “And, I thought, ‘Wow, I can use this beautiful math that I love to do something in the real world.’”
After working in the pharmaceutical industry, Potter said she stumbled into agriculture (or maybe, it stumbled into her).
“I’d been modeling biology in humans, and I started modeling the biology of plants, fell in love with it, and realized how beautiful it was,” she said. “It reconnected me back to my home, farmers, and kept me doing fun, beautiful math and science again with different.
That love for math grew into a career highlight for Potter: using her math skills to help develop a genetically engineered corn variety with more efficiency and better yields.
“There were corn seedlings that came out of the growth chamber that came directly out of my work as a mathematician, and not many mathematicians get to see something like this,” Potter said. “That’s one of the highlights of my career, to directly contribute to that project and see my math come to life. It’s a neat thing about doing math in the ag space.”
Diversity is what has helped to get the job done
Despite smaller numbers (36 percent) of female producers noted in the 2017 Census of Agriculture, about 56 percent of all farms have at least one key female decision-maker.
As one of the few women in her classes at Purdue, Marsh said she was also one of the few minorities. She also was one of the few first-generation agriculturalists. At school, she noted not always having a seat at the table.
“There were times when they wouldn’t interact with me. I think one of the things that really instilled in me was that if this was something that I wanted, I couldn’t let anyone deter me from it,” she said.
Marsh, however, quickly learned that she could find folks who wanted to spend time with her and connect with them on their basic human needs. She noted a professor who told her, “Well, a lot of folks learned it on the farm, and in some instances, they might have learned it wrong. You get to learn it right the first time.”
When Marsh hit the industry, she made sure that the people who would work with her were the most successful, well-taken care of customers on the list.
“We often think about the brother that’s going to take on the farm’s legacy, and in many instances, it’s been the sister,” Marsh said.
And, it’s the farmers who often “get it,” Potter said. “As a research and development person, people often ask me, ‘You do math? In agriculture?’ But, the farmers ask the best questions about data, science, and product discovery — we can carry those discussions back to the lab to figure out what we can do better. Any time I get to talk to growers, it’s like gold. They’re why we’re making these products in the first place, why we’re doing this really fun science.”
“I saw a lot of times when there were farmers in the field, they had daughters, and they saw the work I was doing and what it was going to be like for their daughters in the industry.”
Potter noted that sometimes, she’d walk into the room and know she was the only woman, mathematician, and research and development person, and feel uncomfortable. She remembers a time when she took a risk, and a male colleague shut down her idea.
“I was in a meeting with a lot of high-powered leaders. They were all men, and I was the only woman,” she said. “After my idea got ignored, one of them grabbed it, put it back into consideration, and put my name on it. That was so powerful.”.
Now, that practice of inclusion is something Potter puts into managing her team of scientists. “The best thing is to listen, be curious, ask questions, and grow together,” she said. “I love the opportunity to lead the science of this company as we build sustainable projects for the future.”
“It’s my job to make sure that we’re doing cutting-edge science that matters, that I’m going to have an impact on the business, to deliver and follow up on that,” Potter said. “But our most important thing is that our greatest asset, our people, are highly-engaged with a diverse skill set, backgrounds, and ideas so that we can build innovation and grow together while having fun.”
“Understanding the demographics of the workforce and the employees that we’re working with every day, and how the demographics of the workforce are changing, the diversity in our company only helps us to be that more successful in reaching all of the products that we apply, Marsh said.
And diversity doesn’t stop there. It’s not just about the teams; it’s also about the consumers.
“Agriculture touches so many people. It’s the grower, consultant, channel partners, extension agents, and different influencers,” Marsh said. “All of our customers are not the same — I see diversity at play every day. That diversity only helps our company to be more successful in reaching different producers with the products that we apply.”
Tips to building success in the agriculture industry
- If you ever wanted a mic drop for professional experience in the agriculture industry, this is it: “Be curious, and be curious with a purpose,” Potter advised. “Ask lots of questions. Learn continuously, ask for feedback, build that trust, and collaborate with people who are experts in something you know nothing about. Don’t see that as a threat, see it as an opportunity so you can both learn from each other.”
- Communication is one of your most vital assets. “Build up your communication skills so that you can talk to other people who have different backgrounds, because even when you’re a mathematician, you have to be able to sell your ideas. Having that edge, no matter what field is essential. And don’t be afraid to speak up. You have a unique perspective, experiences, and expertise. There’s going to be a time when you throw an idea, and it’s going to make a difference and send things in a new direction, and who knows what can happen from there — don’t be afraid to speak up,” Potter said.
- Find a mentor. “These are the people I can really count on to answer the hard questions,” Marsh said. “Someone who will give you constructive feedback. It’s a harsh way to say it, but I don’t trust anyone to give me positive feedback if they can’t give me negative feedback. Constructive criticism will help you to grow. It’s essential for everyone, but I think especially for women moving forward in the agriculture industry.”
Heidi Crnkovic, is the Associate Editor for AGDAILY. She is a New Mexico native with deep-seated roots in the Southwest and a passion for all things agriculture.