Outstanding women of Wisconsin agriculture
These ladies are among an impressive group of women that continues to further potato and vegetable production in the state of Wisconsin.
The head research agronomist at Heartland Farms, Inc., Lynn Leahy attributes success in her career to hard work, grit and commitment to life goals, as well as the farm managers at Heartland Farms taking a chance on her.
Leahy, who grew up on a typical small Wisconsin dairy farm in Argyle, Wisconsin, knew by middle school that she wanted to work in agriculture off the family farm.
She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a degree in dairy science, and while there, played in the marching band.
“I was looking for an internship during the summer between my senior year of college and final semester,” she relates. “I stumbled upon a Heartland Farms internship posting on the university student job site.”
“I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2010,” Leahy says, “and the rest is history! I attribute where I am in my career to a lot of hard work, grit and commitment to life goals, as well as the farm managers at Heartland willing to take a chance on me.”
“I had the opportunity to obtain my master’s degree in horticulture while at Heartland Farms, which I completed in 2016 on stem-end defect in potato chips,” she explains.
Leahy has been active in many organizations, such as 4-H, FFA, the Association of Women in Agriculture, Sigma Alpha and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, allowing her to connect with agricultural professionals, and grow and develop leadership skills essential to progressing in her career.
As the head research agronomist at Heartland Farms, she is responsible for managing small-plot field trials from inception to the final data reports.
“A large portion of my responsibilities involves collecting samples and data and maintaining the spreadsheets for a portion of the data,” she explains.
Some of the main categories for which she collects samples and data include emergence, canopy cover, stem counts, bulking curves, new varieties, bruise-free numbers during harvest and sugars in storage.
“As an agronomist, I strive to keep up with all current research being published,” Leahy notes.
She served on WPVGA’s research and SpudPro committees, and in 2017, was selected as a participant in the Potato Industry Leadership Institute (PILI).
“I was able to have great exposure to Maine and Maine’s potato industry during the institute. It opened my eyes to the similarities and differences between our states’ industries,” she says.
As part of PILI, Leahy attended the Potato D.C. Fly-In, where she learned about the National Potato Council and all the individuals who help lobby for grower-friendly legislation.
“In the future, I would like to be a member of the WPVGA Board,” she says.
“I am proud to be able to push the envelope and the boundaries and show that women can be involved in the industry,” Leahy remarks.
First woman president
Heidi Alsum-Randall is the first female president of the Wisconsin Potato Industry Board (WPIB), Heidi Alsum-Randall is chief operating officer of Alsum Farms & Produce in Friesland, Wisconsin, concentrating on the production, sales, human resources and purchasing sides of the business.
“I currently share the chief operating officer role with my sister, Wendy Alsum-Dykstra,” Randall says. “She oversees our logistics and maintenance divisions and is involved in the finance department.”
Randall, who has a Bachelor of Business Administration in Human Resource Management degree, worked as a recruiter for WPS Health Insurance Company and then as a fleet manager for deBoer Transportation.
On a state level, she has served as a director of the WPIB since July 2011 and as president beginning in 2014. Randall has been involved in the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) Promotions & Consumer Education Committee since 2006.
Beginning in 2015, she’s represented Wisconsin on the Potatoes USA Board of Directors, serving in various capacities, including on the Domestic Marketing Administrative Committee.
In 2018, at the March Annual Meeting, she was elected to serve on the Potatoes USA Executive Committee as co-chair of the Industry Outreach Committee and continues to work in this capacity.
“I have one year left of my six-year term on the Potatoes USA Board and have really enjoyed the opportunity to serve and interact with other growers, packers and shippers throughout the United States,” she says.
When asked about being the first female president of the WPIB, Randall replies, “I’m humbled that I was able to earn the respect of the other WPIB directors to be asked to serve in this capacity.”
“I think it also shows how progressive the potato industry and farmers in general are,” she adds. “I appreciate how the potato industry recognizes the need to continually develop the next generation of leaders, whether female or male, and provides opportunities for younger leaders to serve.”
“I absolutely love being part of our family farm and business and the Wisconsin potato and vegetable industry,” Randall says. “I feel privileged to work alongside my dad, sister, brothers, aunt and so many other passionate individuals.”
“In general,” she suggests, “potato growers are collaborative, and this is especially true in Wisconsin where we have earned a reputation in the potato industry because of how well we work together.”
Another reason Randall says she enjoys being part of the industry is that things are constantly changing, and every day is different.
Career-driven by nature, Randall has worked in some capacity since she was 12 years old, such as grading potatoes many summers and throughout the fall in elementary and high school.
In college, she waitressed as well as worked with adults who had developmental disabilities, and Randall would return home on weekends to work in the office.
“My parents instilled a strong work ethic in my siblings and I,” she says, “and I am extremely grateful for that. I knew I wanted a career that was purposeful, and for me, that was either working with children or adults who have developmental disabilities or working for the family business.”
Being a good leader
In her career at Alsum Farms & Produce, she sets small goals for herself related to different areas of the job, trying to be the best leader that she can.
Randall also set goals with each of her team leaders and reviews them throughout the year to make sure she is challenging each employee in the areas that are important to them for personal and professional growth.
“I enjoy interacting with all departments of our company,” she says. “Each day brings different challenges and opportunities as I continue to learn more about our company and the industry.”
“I appreciate the fact that I’m given an opportunity to challenge myself and grow professionally and personally,” Randall relates.
“As a whole,” she continues, “I feel agriculture has advanced through the decades, embracing women working in the industry. I respect leaders, whether male or female, for their skills and abilities and appreciate working with all growers to advance the industry.”
Randall says she’s also proud of the collective strength of the Wisconsin potato industry, pointing out that the state’s growers were leaders in bringing IPM (Integrated Pest Management) standards and practices in potato farming in the mid-1990’s, remaining committed to the program today.
She references the WPVGA Promotions Committee, which, after several years of planning, was able to launch the Spudmobile as an educational tool for the Wisconsin potato industry to utilize at a variety of different events (school, retail, community, etc.).
The purpose of the Spudmobile is to educate consumers about farming and where their food comes, making meaningful connections from field to fork.
“Looking to the future,” Randall concludes, “with discussions of joining the Madison Public Market, I am excited about possibilities and venues to introduce new consumers to the healthy and nutritious products that we grow with a year-round presence.”
“I hope that I give confidence to the many women who follow me,” Leahy adds, “that you not only can work in a male-dominated industry, but also thrive. You can learn anything and do many more things than you think possible!”
With a dairy background, Leahy says the potato industry is a smaller, more tightknit group.
“I have enjoyed getting to know many people in the potato community, and because we have a tightknit relationship with researchers and professors, ideas flow from farm to researchers and back,” she notes.
As a result, the research being completed is pertinent to the industry.
With potatoes being an intensive crop to raise, store and market, Leahy says she enjoys the challenge of finding solutions to problems that arise daily.
“We always have new varieties and equipment, and different consumer trends and weather every year,” she exclaims. “All of these issues require adaptation, and it keeps the job fresh and interesting.”
“I like to feel as though I’ve accomplished something at the end of the day—to have contributed to something that is helping society,” Leahy says.
“In my case right now,” she adds, “it’s knowing that everyone who wants delicious potato chips has them available to buy whenever they want. Granted, eating a family-size bag every day is not recommended.”
Hurdles for women
When asked if there are hurdles women face in agriculture that guys don’t, Leahy explains, “One of the big obstacles we as women are still overcoming is being taken seriously as the primary decisionmaker and farmer on an operation.”
“According to the 2018 Census of Agriculture,” Leahy continues, “38 percent of the primary producers and farmers are women. In another 25 years, I believe this hurdle will be eliminated.”
“I know many women who are my age and younger that manage a farm while their significant other brings in outside income. Even in my 10 years in the workforce, I am seeing more women out in the field or at meetings,” she notes. “It is a very exciting time in agriculture.”
Out of the nine interns Heartland Farms has hired since 2016, Leahy says only two have been men.
“The other obvious barrier we face is having to take time off to have and raise children,” she reasons, “which can be minimized if everyone works together, coworkers and spouses, to share the responsibility of the workload and parenting.”
“Raising our next generation of Americans is also a very important job in addition to working in agriculture,” Leahy surmises.
When she landed an internship in the potato industry, Leahy admits knowing nothing about potatoes beyond that there were different kinds in the grocery store. She acknowledges being proud of everything she has learned over the past 10 years working in the field.
“Taking advantage of the opportunities I have been given in the Wisconsin potato and vegetable growing industry has allowed me to live the life that I envisioned for myself when I graduated from college a decade ago,” she concludes.
Joe Kertzman is the managing editor of the Badger Common’Tater