In honor of International Women’s Day, we had the privilege of sitting down with three women who are not just making inroads in agricultural development, equity, and sustainability, but who embody what it means to be a mentor and have made it their priority to support young people and other women in the sector. Tina May, Amanda De Jong, and Alexis Taylor met 14 years ago while cutting their teeth on the 2008 Farm Bill. A shared experience of growing up in farming communities (Amanda and Alexis are actually sisters) and the late nights that turned into mornings working on the farm bill really bonded the three Iowa natives, and since leaving DC to pursue their respective careers they have remained close friends and staunch advocates for one another.
Today we celebrate the accomplishments of each of these women and the work they’re doing to advance the entire industry as well as foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for the next generation.
Tina May currently serves as the VP of Rural Services and Chief of Staff to the CEO at Land O’ Lakes, Inc., a 3,825 member-owned agricultural cooperative, where she works on innovative solutions for farmers and co-op member-owners at the intersection of business and policy. Tina started her career as an international grain trader and logistics coordinator with The Scoular Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prior to Land O’ Lakes, Tina worked for 12 years on agriculture and food policy in a number of roles, including as the legislative director for the USDA as well as the Chief of Staff to US Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden. During this time she served as the policy director for the 2014 farm bill, shepherding the conservation, forestry, and international development work for the Committee. She also co-founded the first DC based lobbying firm to incorporate as a public benefit corporation.
Tina hails from a family farm in Stacyville Iowa and has found that the “further she gets from that dirt road” the more she values her rural upbringing. She was the first generation to go to college in her family and appreciates that while no one expected anything of her, she knew that whatever she did she would be supported by her family and her entire community. Today she remains true to her midwestern roots, managing a farm in Minnesota with her husband and three boys. She attributes her success to some incredible women mentors she has had throughout her career from Debbie Stabenow the current senator of Michigan, to Krysta Harden, former United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, to her current boss, Beth Ford who is the CEO at Land O’Lakes.
Last year, under Tina’s leadership, Land O’Lakes launched the American Connection Project, aimed at improving access to high speed internet and digital connectivity across the US. 18 Million Americans currently lack access to high speed internet including about 9 million K-12 students, 400,000 public school teachers, and 25% of farmers. As Tina pointed out, Covid-19 has made the disadvantages that stem from being on the wrong side of the country’s digital divide even more acute, as everything from business meetings, to school, doctors appointments, and government proceedings now take place online. To launch this effort, Land O’Lakes has convened over 140 organizations including businesses, trade associations, nonprofits, municipalities, and academic institutions. This coalition has been tasked with advocating for policy reform and public and private sector investment to bring high speed internet infrastructure to rural areas. Land O’Lakes and other partners have already implemented free Wi-Fi access points outside Land O’Lakes business locations in more than 150 communities. In October the coalition launched the American Connection Project Interactive Wi-Fi map, a tool which enables users to locate more than 2,300 free Wi-Fi locations in 49 states.
"Ensuring that all neighborhoods, all communities have strong, reliable, affordable access to the internet and everything that connection unlocks in terms of economic development for those families is such a critical piece right now as a country as we go forward.”
- Tina May, VP of Rural Services and Chief of Staff to the CEO at Land O’ Lakes, Inc.
Amanda De Jong grew up with her sister Alexis on a corn and soybean farm in Northeast Iowa. Amanda attended Iowa State University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business, and later earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa Law School. She currently serves as the South West Business Unit Lead for Landus Cooperative, a 7,000 member farmer-owned agricultural cooperative headquartered in Ames, Iowa. In this role she is responsible for all grain, agronomy, and feed across 22 locations in central and western Iowa as well as government affairs, external affairs, sustainability, and data innovation.
Before joining Landus, Amanda worked for four years with Senator Chuck Grassley where she negotiated provisions for the 2008 farm bill. She also served as a senior policy advisor for the Iowa Corn Growers Association and most recently she served as the State Executive Director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency at the USDA, becoming the first woman to hold that position. Setting the next generation up for success is a top priority for Amanda. She is an active supporter of the Agriculture Future of America Organization and even formed her own non-profit, Young Professionals in Agriculture, to connect young people in the industry through networking, philanthropy, and learning opportunities. She still calls Iowa home, managing a cattle, hay, and row crop operation with her husband and raising two sons.
The experience of growing up on a farm and working alongside her father, instilled in Amanda a love of the land and a mission to make farming more profitable. Today she is working to improve data collection in agriculture and make insights from that data more accessible and valuable for farmers. Amanda pointed out that while we are collecting considerably more data than ever before, it’s not being utilized in a way that helps farmers make smarter, data driven, financial and environmental decisions. Landus is currently working on building data lockers for farmers, essentially a data repository where farmers can store their data and decide how and when they want to use it and who they want to share it with. The applications for this technology are endless and include carbon banking opportunities, increased water efficiency, and better livestock management.
"Profitability is a huge part of sustainability. Without it sustainability doesn’t exist. So really what we're trying to do is position ourselves for today and for whatever might come, and position our farmers for whatever might come so that they can better access government programs. They can better access private programs like the true carbon program that Land O'Lakes is running. No one individual can do that on their own.”
- Amanda De Jong, South West Business Unit Lead, Landus Cooperative
Alexis Taylor has been in public service from the age of 17 when she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. During her sophomore year in college she was deployed to Iraq where she served one tour with the 389th Combat Engineer Battalion. After college she worked in Washington DC for 12 years focusing on US agriculture and trade policy. During that time she held positions in both the senate and the house, working on the 2008 and 2014 farm bills and overseeing the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services, developing new international markets for US agricultural products. In 2016 she was appointed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown to serve as the Director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. In this role she promotes and regulates food and agriculture in Oregon while keeping ODA’s mission of ensuring healthy natural resources, environment, and economy for Oregonians at the forefront of her work.
Alexis spoke to the importance of identifying and taking advantage of opportunities as they come and she has made it her mission to help other women in the industry expand their career opportunities. In her work with the USDA, Alexis led the Women in Agriculture Initiative which provides resources as well as networking and mentorship opportunities for women farmers. As a continuation of these efforts, Alexis is currently working on launching the Women’s Farm2Food Accelerator program, the product of a partnership between the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The program will train a cohort of women entrepreneurs in marketing, product development, food safety packaging, and finances. The goal of the program is to help women farmers become more resilient, and support them, particularly through the Covid-19 crisis, by helping them to diversify the products they sell and explore new markets. In addition to providing access to 16 online modules the program will also award 40,000 in startup funds to women farmers.
"I think there is a really exciting opportunity that we as a State Department of Agriculture can help a group of women to move into that next market or move into a brand new market and, and make their farm business more profitable and more sustainable."
- Alexis Taylor, Director Oregon Department of Agriculture
To hear Tina, Alexis, and Amanda discuss their work, the importance of mentorship, and how they see agriculture bridging numerous social and political divides, check out the full podcast episode. It gives us so much pride and reassurance for the future of our sector to learn from three women who are not only brilliant change makers in their field but are conscientiously thinking about how to pass the baton. They view it as their responsibility to bring up the next generation of agricultural leaders and cultivate an environment in which women have every opportunity to succeed and influence the industry as much as they have. All three women cited Krysta Harden, former United States Secretary of Agriculture, as a mentor who guided them through their careers and showed them how to mentor others. As Tina put it, “Something that Krista has taught us, not by saying, but by showing and doing is that it is imperative that we reach back and help the next generation behind us and bring them up and ensure that they have similar opportunities that we did. If not more.”
We can’t wait to see what these women will do next as they continue to transform the industry and lead the way for other women in agriculture.