From Land O’Lakes to Around the World and Back AgainShare
When she started college, Elizabeth Alonzi never imagined a career in agriculture. Now, having been a Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Emerging Leader and, years later, in a full-time position with WinField United, it seems as if ag has been a happy landing.
As a bioproducts and biosystems engineering student in the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Alonzi’s focus was on bioplastics — plastics made from renewable sources.
While doing STEM outreach for the CSE to K–12 students, Alonzi’s supervisor talked with her about applying to become an Emerging Leader with the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge during the 2015–16 academic year. As someone who had an interest in sustainability and international travel, Alonzi jumped at the chance and was chosen. Her experience included travel to Africa as well as a week at an agricultural cooperative in the United States and time in Washington, D.C., to observe the legislative process as it relates to agriculture. It connected the dots for her — and those dots led to ag.
“It was an incredible opportunity to see how agriculture is practiced both in the U.S. and abroad,” says Alonzi, whose group traveled to Rwanda and Kenya. “As part of the application process, we also had to come up with an idea to improve food security. In researching that, I discovered some of the significant issues agriculture is facing. I realized that agriculture represents one of the major environmental and sustainability challenges of my generation.”
Taking a different path
After the Global Food Challenge, Alonzi was offered another internship at Land O’Lakes for the following summer (as are many Global Food Challenge Emerging Leaders). But she opted to pursue two other opportunities to have new experiences and see agriculture in different ways.
First, she traveled to Haiti to help start a business working with a rural agricultural cooperative. There, she worked with farmers to make sustainable on-farm practices profitable. “Haiti is very hilly and farmers often deal with hurricanes and rainstorms, all of which contribute to soil erosion,” Alonzi explains. “One of the things we discussed with farmers was growing a type of grass called vetiver, which has a dense, deep root structure that can help hold soil in place.”
The challenge is that farmers in Haiti must also use their land to grow food for their families. “The goal of this work is to incentivize farmers to plant crops like vetiver, which can also be turned into cash crops. Then they can afford to plant them and actually profit from these more sustainable decisions,” says Alonzi.
Next, she undertook an internship in Sweden working with a forestry cooperative that turned wood into viscose fibers, which in turn is made into Rayon clothing. It was the perfect fit with her bioproducts major.
Putting learnings into practice
After her experiences abroad, Alonzi graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2018. She also found her way back to Land O’Lakes, currently working at the WinField United Innovation Center in River Falls, Wisconsin, doing research on adjuvants. Adjuvants are added to farmers’ spray tanks to help crop protection products hit their intended targets for greater efficacy. They also reduce the number of fine spray droplets, which helps products such as herbicides avoid drifting onto neighboring fields and into waterways, where they could have a negative effect.
“I’ll work on something in the chemistry lab, then take the formulations down to a wind tunnel to test how effective they are in reducing spray drift,” she says. “It’s all about helping minimize the environmental impact of how food is grown, as well as helping farmers improve their bottom lines and be more efficient.”
Taking ag full circle
Alonzi has found a way to combine her passions for sustainable agriculture and food security, which he first discovered through the Global Food Challenge. “The Global Food Challenge highlighted for me how important these issues are and how few people know there’s a need to work on solving them,” she says. “It’s a compelling story that makes people want to help. It’s a big challenge, but everyone should have access to safe and affordable food.”
© 2018 Land O’Lakes, Inc.