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Top 20 Under 30 by Alex Martin

The future of the seed industry and agriculture always seems so vague and distant — agriculture has been changing so quickly and vastly, that it’s hard to pin down what will be the next big thing. Is it artificial intelligence? Gene-editing? Drones? Or do any of those things actually matter at all?

What if, instead of focusing on the next big thing in agriculture, we focused on “the who” behind the next big thing? Who will be the creators? Who will be the breeders? Who will be the leaders?

During the past few months, I had the pleasure of seeking out some of these future leaders. In this section, we’re showcasing a few of these young professionals. These young professionals were so excited to be nominated, and they were even more excited to nominate some of their own peers that they’ve enjoyed working with. They’re forming strong connections, good work ethic and all-in-all, I truly believe these faces will be the faces we will see and come to know as future leaders of the industry.

We have listed everyone in alphabetical order by first name. We hope you enjoy learning about some young faces in the seed industry!

Adam Bolton

Adam Bolton has one passion: plant breeding. After starting in a forestry program, Bolton decided to take a horticulture class, where his love for plant breeding began. From there, he knew that he wanted to pursue a hands-on breeding program, which led him to his PhD. Bolton is wrapping up his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his research focuses on abiotic stress tolerance in carrots. Carrots are the most sensitive vegetable crop, and Bolton and his collaborators are working to make carrots more tolerant to areas like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where there’s a lot of salt and heat stress.

In the future, he would love to see more collaboration in the seed industry to get food to places where there are shortages. After his PhD, Bolton will join Syngenta Seeds as a breeding trial specialist in green beans and peas. Bolton says his work is rewarding because he can take it home with him — his dog, Penny, loves carrots and green beans almost as much as he does!

Alex Hoffman

Alex Hoffman didn’t grow up in agriculture — he was on track to be a professional football player. After enduring a career-ending injury, Hoffman decided to pursue his MBA, where he was led to interview with Corteva Agriscience. Five years later, his lack of an agriculture background hasn’t hindered his career at all. He started in seed sales, which he says is the heart of Corteva Agriscience. However, Hoffman wanted to challenge himself even further, which led him to his current position as marketing manager of PhytoGen Cottonseed.

While marketing is a step away from sales, Hoffman thinks that sales and marketing work hand-in-hand — if the sales rep doesn’t believe in the product, then the rep can’t sell seeds effectively! He works to make sure that everyone’s working on the same wavelength. Hoffman says that if there’s one piece of advice to give to young professionals coming into the seed industry, it would be to show up, work hard and ask a lot of questions. In the future, Hoffman is excited to see more faces from outside of agriculture bring new ideas to the industry.

Andrew Lauver

Andrew Lauver is a face people are sure to recognize. As a former Future Giant of the Seed Industry, Lauver has been working hard to make that title true. Since graduating from Iowa State University, he has worked as a legislative intern at the Iowa House of Representatives and as the American Seed Trade Association’s government and regulatory affairs intern. Now, he’s landed at Syngenta, where he’s the manager of Industry Relations. Lauver says his role at Syngenta brings together all of his foundational experiences he’s had. Today, he gets to work with growers, like his father and grandfather, and commodity groups like the National Corn Growers Association to help farmers and organizations learn how to share their stories and answer tough questions around different policies and regulations.

Lauver says the best piece of advice he’s ever received is to never eat lunch alone. Each week, he aspires to have lunch with at least five people. No matter their title, he believes each person contributes to the greater goal of the company and without listening to someone’s story, then it’s hard to know how they’re working to create solutions.

Austin Dobbels

Austin Dobbels wanted to be a part of something revolutionary in plant breeding, so he looked into the cutting-edge technology of drone phenotyping for his PhD research at the University of Minnesota. One of the major obstacles to soybean production in Minnesota is iron deficiency chlorosis, a complex stress typically found on high pH soils and soils with large amounts of soluble salts. Dobbels is researching how to make use of drones in breeding programs to help detect iron deficiency chlorosis in soybeans — instead of walking the fields that can take hours for a single location, drones can screen the same field in a matter of minutes.

Dobbels developed a research project with his advisor, Dr. Aaron Lorenz, that would benefit both his research ambitions and the soybean breeding program at the University of Minnesota. With funding secured through the very competitive United Soybean Board fellowship, he has the flexibility to carry out his own vision for his research. In the future, he would really like to see his research in the hands of farmers where they can use similar technology to help them grow their own crops more efficiently and more sustainably. As an advocate for science communication and sustainable agriculture, Dobbels wants to see the agriculture industry work together with universities and farmers to have better education and outreach for the public to eliminate problems like pseudoscience and fear mongering related to our food supply.

Avi Kaler

Avi Kaler likes to say that he’s a plant doctor. When growing up in Punjab, India, Kaler wanted to be a doctor. After learning more about crops and how they grow, he decided to focus on becoming a plant scientist by getting his Master of Science in Agronomy. He later moved to the University of Arkansas to pursue his PhD in Crop Science with a focus on quantitative genetics, big data analytics, data mining. Now, as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Kaler looks to improve soybean for yield and abiotic stresses by using his background in soybean genomics. In his research, he’s working on developing a tool to help other breeders select and find any soybean trait that they would like to work with.

To him, plant breeding is like a puzzle, where he’s been trying to find all the correct pieces (favorable alleles) to solve how to create high yielding and drought-tolerant varieties. He also works with Benson Hill Biosystems as a computational biologist.

Ben Pickering

Ben Pickering’s interest in agriculture developed when he started detasseling at age 13. He followed that passion. Now, he is lead agronomist at AgReliant Genetics’ Ogden, Iowa production facility. Pickering’s favorite part about working in production is seeing the whole process: from planting the seed, detasseling it, harvesting it and bagging it.

His recommendation for people working as close with growers as he does? Learn your audience. Adjust on the fly for each grower and keep moving forward. In the future, Pickering is looking forward to seeing how the seed industry adapts to a challenging political climate, and how regulatory barriers will determine how seed companies support farmers. After watching decisions made around the world that could hinder innovation, Pickering is excited to see who will come up with the next big innovative idea.

Claire Luby

Claire Luby is a plant scientist who focuses on seed systems to address challenges ranging from Indigenous food sovereignty to plant resilience in the face of climate change. Her research seeks to enable more diverse peoples to work with more kinds of seeds in more places using plant breeding to uniquely diversify agricultural systems through local adaptation of seeds to different environmental contexts. Her PhD research examined the effect of intellectual property rights (IP) on plant breeders’ and farmers’ freedom to use carrots for various purposes. While this project focused on carrots specifically, the broader goal was to develop a robust model for open source seeds and plant breeding.

To mobilize the knowledge generated from this research, Claire was a founding member of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), an international organization devoted to maintaining fair and open access to seeds to ensure that people can maintain the freedom to adapt seeds to their own environmental and cultural needs. Since OSSI’s founding in 2014, 40 plant breeders have released nearly 500 varieties of OSSI seeds sold by 62 seed companies in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and OSSI has served as a model for sister organizations around the world.

Corey Beck

Corey Beck’s seed industry roots run deep — his grandfather and father lead Beck’s Hybrids, and Beck says it’s been exciting to see the company grow as he’s grown up. After graduating from Purdue University, Beck didn’t immediately return home to the family business. Instead, he worked as a graduate assistant football coach at Duke University. While he enjoyed many aspects of coaching, it became clear that what he valued most was being present and connected to the family.

Since returning to the family business, Beck started as seed enhancements lead, managing the seed treatment area within the company. He has since moved to the finance department as a business analyst. The best part about the job? He gets to work with all the departments the company has to offer. Business analyst can mean a lot of things, but in Beck’s role, it means quality control and process improvement to make sure that partners and the company as a whole have the right information at all times. From these different jobs, Beck has learned the importance of establishing the right culture and ensuring your team is headed in the right direction.

Cutis Van Laecke

Curtis Van Laecke knew agriculture was his calling. He grew up on a tobacco farm in Western Ontario. When heading to school, he knew he wanted to stay in agriculture, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a farmer or join the industry. Van Laecke ended up going to the University of Guelph, where he majored in plant science. He said combining the numbers side and science side of agriculture to make the genetics side was his favorite. In 2006, Van Laecke and his wife along with his parents established Horizon Seeds, where he took the role of head of research and product advancement.

Van Laecke is always looking to self-improve; his role is an evolving role, and he looks at every opportunity to better himself. He has attended the University of California Plant Breeding Academy to better develop new lines of corn — his favorite part of the job! Van Laecke is looking forward to seeing where corn is growing in Canada. He wants to see farmers push the envelope on maturity.

Jessica Bubert

Jessica Bubert’s passion for agriculture was cultivated on her family’s corn and soybean farm. She loved the community surrounding her and discovered at a young age that along with her passion for farming, she had a love of science. Becoming a plant breeder was the way to combine her two loves. Bubert focused in on corn breeding, because she thinks corn is fun to work with! She enjoys the freedom of working with a crop that can be freely crossed, instead of naturally self-pollinated (and she doesn’t have to crawl on the ground to work).

After leaving school, Bubert went on to become AgReliant Genetic’s first female corn breeder. Bubert has been so thankful for a community that’s willing to accept her — she mentioned at AgReliant, no one treats it like a big deal that she’s the first female corn breeder in the company’s history. She’s excited that she has opened the doors to all the women who will come behind her.

Josh Earll

Josh Earll grew up on a hobby farm with a little bit of everything. Before heading to Iowa State University, he never imagined going into the seed industry. Originally, he pursued his degree in agricultural communication and journalism. In today’s world, it’s important to focus on communicating what we really do, he says. He still works to communicate well every day — currently, he is a district sales manager at Bayer, and chair of the American Seed Trade Association’s Future Seed Executives subcommittee.

Earll says one of the most important aspects of communication isn’t just speaking clearly, it’s about listening well, too. By listening to people with more and different experiences than you, you excel in your professional life. In the future, Earll is excited about watching new research and development come into play in the market, and he’s excited to see how the United States continues to battle through tough times, especially in light of these trade agreements popping up.

Josh Miller

Josh Miller didn’t grow up on a farm, but while he was in high school, he worked on a small farm. He didn’t know that farm would be where he drew his inspiration for FarmShots, a satellite imagery service provider that Syngenta acquired in 2018. Miller’s background is in electrical engineering and computer science, and when he graduated, he didn’t like his slate of options for careers. While working for the International Farming Corporation, Miller saw that following his idea for FarmShots seemed like the perfect opportunity, because at the time, there weren’t a lot of people bringing digital tools to farming.

He worked side-by-side with the agronomists at the International Farming Corporation to develop the tool that was most valuable to them. Miller says that starting a company is probably one of the scariest things you can do, but it’s a great way to grow yourself. He recommends for anyone thinking about jumping in, to just go for it and to see what happens. In the future, he wants to see more adaptable variable-rate seeding.

Juniper Kiss

Juniper Kiss tried to rebel against working with plants. She was set on doing something different, so she chose to specialize in marine biology while working in agriculture full-time. After receiving a scholarship from the American Society of Agronomy, she realized she couldn’t outrun agriculture as hard as she tried. In the fall, she will begin her PhD in plant pathology with a specialization in banana disease control in Latin America.

Other than a passion for plant pathology, Kiss also founded Global Opportunities for Ecological Sustainability (GOES) magazine, an open access publishing magazine for biology students that tackles a range of topics from science to conservation to sustainability. Her aim was to encourage her classmates to write and publish themselves and share their passion for science with the public. Kiss is driven by a passion to help others — one of the reasons she chose her PhD project is to work with banana farmers in the field and come up with an ecologically and economically sound solution for them with a dedicated group of scientists.

Kacey Birchmier

Kacey Birchmier grew up on a 4th generation family farm with row crops, corn and soybeans. She didn’t plan to go into the industry until she went to college and saw firsthand how far removed people were from agriculture. From then, she decided she wanted to tell that story. Birchmier served as the agronomy and conservation editor of Successful Farming before moving on to the media relations manager for Corteva Agriscience. While she loved being able to tell farmer stories through different mediums, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help share the story of a new agriculture company. Birchmier says she’s able to look at situations through different lenses.

Her advice for sharing our story today? Transparency, because that’s what consumers demand from companies. The future for Birchmier all goes back to the farmer. She’s excited to see what new solutions the industry can come up with.

Katelyn Fritz

Katelyn Fritz saw agriculture as a small portion of her life — that is, until she got involved with the World Food Prize. Two years later, she applied for the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, where she was able to go to the Philippines to study biofortified rice. At Iowa State University, Fritz majored in agronomy and global resource systems with an emphasis of plant breeding and biotechnology. At first, she thought she would focus her global resource systems major on Southeast Asia, but after hearing a guest speaker discuss his biofortification research in Guatemala, she made the switch and pursued an internship in Guatemala.

After graduation, Fritz is moving to North Carolina State to pursue her master’s degree under Jeff Dunn, who specializes in peanut breeding. Fritz is excited to see a change in research in the future — what changes can we make in seed if we don’t see huge changes in research all around? She’d like to see more nutrient-based products in the future.

Katelyn Litche

Katelyn Lichte grew up in rural Minnesota surrounded by corn and soybeans. She went to university to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, and after, through Corteva Agriscience’s Emerging Leaders program, Lichte is receiving broad exposure to what the production facility does in both soybeans and corn, and she even was able to continue expanding her knowledge by taking a course through Iowa State University on genetic modification, testing and the overall seed indu-stry.

Lichte isn’t just a superstar in the office, though; she’s also a superstar of her community. She works in elementary schools to help teachers teach STEM in their classes, she’s a FIRST LEGO League robotics coach with a team of seven students and she’s the outreach chair for the local section of the Society of Women Engineers. In her free time, she also likes to write on her blog Stems of Advocacy, which she uses as an outreach blog to teach people more about agriculture and engineering.

Kyle Parmley

Kyle Parmley was inspired to become a plant breeder while growing up in north central Oklahoma. He was able to see new corn hybrids perform well in their rough environment, and from there, he was driven to learn how scientists were developing these new plant varieties able to flourish in such harsh environments. He went on to Oklahoma State University, where he worked under a wheat breeder, and since then, he’s been hooked.

He’s since moved on to Iowa State to pursue his master’s and PhD in a multi-disciplinary soybean breeding group, where they’re challenged every day to see how they can integrate novel computer vision, machine learning and optimization techniques into plant breeding. One specific research project Parmley worked on was a prescriptive breeding technology relying on a mixture of ground-based and aerial data and using artificial intelligence (AI) to make in-season predictions of seed yield and adaptation to specific management systems for candidate varieties in a breeding program.

In November 2018, Parmley started working as a soybean germplasm enhancement breeder for Bayer Crop Science, where he gets to continue to use his ability to work across disciplines to bring new and useful genetic diversity to soybeans in a rapid and strategic way.

Liz Knutson

Liz Knutson knew after putting on her blue corduroy FFA jacket that she was in agriculture for the long haul. Ag Ed allowed her to get a diversified knowledge that would equip her for either industry or classroom. While student teaching, Knutson discovered that she preferred her classroom to be more for adult learners, which also led her to the Emerging Leaders program at Corteva Agriscience. She got her start in industry in production, where she learned how to get seed in the bag before she moved to commercial sales. She loved working with farmers boot-to-boot, because you learn what’s successful and what’s not.

However, she decided it was time to put her education skills back to work. She now works as a product marketing manager for Pioneer brand seeds, where she helps local sales reps grow their businesses. To her, education is getting people engaged and excited about whatever they are invested in, and that’s exactly what she does in marketing.

Shannon Kubik

Shannon Kubik grew up with a farmer for a grandfather and a seed dealer for a dad. She looked up to people on the ag communication side — at the time, she wanted to grow up to be like the executive director from the Nebraska Beef Council. Communication called her name. She began her career in 2012 with an AgReliant Genetics legacy brand, and now she supports all the marketing efforts across LG Seeds. She says her career has been all about building brands — initially, helping to build the Producers Hybrids legacy brand and now having the opportunity to transition to and help build the new LG Seeds brand from the ground up.

The first question Kubik asks anyone she works with? What’s your “why?” She says, if you know someone’s “why,” then you can help grow the industry as a whole. Kubik’s “why?” She wants to inspire people to be more, to be better and to be themselves.

Sierra Williamson

Sierra Williamson’s just getting her start in the industry. She was born into an agriculture community, where she learned all about the effort needed to drive food systems. Learning about food systems drove her when going to school — she now attends the University of Minnesota as an agriculture and food business management major. One of her passions? Food insecurity. Williamson grew up in a small area where community was everything, and everyone looked out for one another. In the grand scheme of things,

Williamson believes we should be looking out for everyone in our global community, because we all share this planet. Williamson’s passion for food insecurity grew when she was accepted into the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Program, which was an internship designed for sophomores to learn how to create food security solutions. In the future, Williamson is excited to see one major thing: technology, technology, and more technology! She believes technology is the answer for the industry to tackle grand challenges such as food insecurity and feeding the growing population by 2050.

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