#187 Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action
Erin Fitzgerald serves as Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action (USFRA). She is passionate about encouraging contagious collaboration to build the sustainable food systems of the 21st century. Erin previously worked in dairy where she led a voluntary carbon goal, innovation projects, and sustainable supply chain framework. Erin has been recognized in Chicago’s 40 under 40, a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture, and an Aspen Institute First Movers Fellow.
Bigger Than Us #187
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:04
Erin, how are you doing today?
Erin Fitzgerald 01:23
I’m doing great. I’m so excited to be here. Raj, thank you so much.
Host Raj Daniels 01:26
Erin, I am super excited to have you on. As I mentioned before, we started rolling the research I had to do for this show. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And something you said in another interview is where I’d like to start. I would like to learn more about appreciative inquiry.
Erin Fitzgerald 01:42
I’m a huge fan, Raj, of appreciative inquiry. Dr. David Cooperrider — In 2008, I got introduced to this. And it’s about really asking a system or an organization to appreciate, and when you look at something to appreciate, you can improve the value of by truly looking and appreciating about what’s working. And inquiring is asking the right question of what is working. And if I were to appreciate that and create a strength-based approach versus a deficit-based approach, like, “Why isn’t this working?”
It’s just a different lens in lifting up and finding the sense of possibilities. And quite often in agriculture, I had always heard “Well, the food systems broken and and all this isn’t working.” But we said, well, what is working? What is the sector? And how could we lean into our strengths? It’s a completely different question. And so appreciative inquiry is a way of making certain that the system is in the room, all different types of voices and leaders, and then really looking at what’s the strength of the system and working towards that.
Host Raj Daniels 02:49
So right now you’re the CEO of — it’s a mouthful — US Farmers and Ranchers in Action. Can you give me an example of how you’ve used appreciative inquiry in the work that you do?
Erin Fitzgerald 03:02
It back in 2019. So US Farmers and Ranchers in Action, I fundamentally believed we changed the name. So that was in action. We believe it takes leaders in action. And we looked at the food and ag sector, and we thought, “Gosh, we got to get the leaders all in the same room, into a hot barn.” So in 2019, this is before COVID. And we brought together about 100 leaders into a barn. And we used appreciative inquiry and made sure every single sector was represented, anyone who touches food and ag. And we started asking them to imagine the future. What does 2030 look like? What’s working, and we used appreciative inquiry, facilitation, and over 18 visioning sessions, even through COVID. And right when COVID was happening, so this is a fire drill, we have system bend, but didn’t break.
Now’s the time to lean in even more as leaders in action and get this vision released. So in September 2020, we affirmed the vision after 18 working sessions, and then in 2021, this vision came to life, which we’re calling the Decade of Ag. And it’s really about lifting up and finding the great things that work in the sector and asking leaders to lean in and do more by 2030.
Host Raj Daniels 04:28
Now, you mentioned the Decade of Ag; before we get there, I’d like to learn more about this idea of the next 30 harvests.
Erin Fitzgerald 04:35
Hmm. We hear a lot for other sectors — I know you’re in the energy sector, right? We see the health sector, we know by 2050 we have to really reduce carbon emissions, and we have more people coming to the planet. But for agriculture, the level of innovation and scale isn’t really well-understood or talked about. So the next 30 years, that means that we have to produce as much food, fiber, and energy as we produce all of mankind up to this point. And that might seem like okay, that’s possible, I get the innovation curve.
But that means for a farmer, each growing season, each spring when they go out into that field, that they have to get that much incrementally better, and they get one chance to do so, in the face of Mother Nature. And we are facing extreme and episodic events, 8 out of the last 10 harvest seasons. We’re kind of facing this experiment of growing and producing food in the face of climate change, in the face of one of the greatest challenges ever that our farmers are faced with. So I often say that this level of innovation and scale is truly not unlike going to the moon or traversing the ocean for the first time, is a clarion call to help our farmers in the next 30 harvests, 30 chances to be innovative, to have every resource possible, to be able to provide for food and also adapt to the changing climates. That is happening. And that’s real.
Host Raj Daniels 06:15
Now, I don’t want to cause worry for people listening to the show. But I’m just curious. You mentioned 2020, COVID, the farming system, it bent it didn’t break. But how tenuous is our farm system right now?
Erin Fitzgerald 06:27
You know, we are very strong. I think that was one thing that was amazing that we saw in the food and ag sector. Everyone kind of leaned in and has, very much, a commitment to make certain that there were food on the shelves. But you also see it’s a very people-based system. 15% of the American workforce is tied to food and agriculture.
So as you saw, of course, COVID really — it’s a people based system. And we had protocols in place, luckily, to food safety. And I think we moved very quickly to put more protocols in place as we learned more about the epidemic, of course, with COVID, as all businesses were, but what became very apparent for the first time is that the consuming public actually reconnected with their dinner plates in a very unique way.
Everyone has always been taking photos of their dinner plates. Those really went up during COVID people were going back to recipes and then turning and asking, “What can I do to help a restaurant worker? What can I help do to help that grocery store worker? What can I do to help a farmer?” And so in many respects, the consuming public got a chance to kind of come back to the dinner table on on what really matters. And that’s one of the things I like to talk about is when we think about those 30 harvest is that we have a responsibility as Americans to truly honor that harvest. Don’t lose that. There is a lot of gratitude, you know, we have a whole holiday dedicated to honoring the harvest — Thanksgiving; there’s a lot that happens to get that food on our plate.
Host Raj Daniels 08:06
You know, you mentioned reconnecting with our dinner plates. You mentioned Thanksgiving, what can be done? Or what do you suggest can be done to help individuals consumers connect back to the farmers in themselves?
Erin Fitzgerald 08:19
Well, I think it’s really simple. I actually have this as a World War II poster, I’ll give you an example of it. I’ll send it to you, Raj, after. But I call it honoring the harvest. So the simple thing is what your grandma taught you, so don’t take too much. Okay, so that’s 10% of your footprint. Really honor what’s on your plate, don’t waste it, don’t throw it to this magical place called away. Where is away anyway?
And then it makes sense to reduce your immediate footprint. Okay? Then you have to ask yourself, “What am I doing?” Food is the greatest impact in our communities at our dinner tables, where we witness economies, communities. There’s one in six people who are food insecure that went up during COVID. In particular, you can get on Feeding America and map the meal gap right away and find out hidden hunger in your neighborhood.
That is how you extend your handprint in your community, and then continue to reduce your footprint, then you have to ask, “Where’s this? How do I help my farmer?” The farmer, that rest of that 60% of the food footprint of the impact, we have to take a bet that our farmers are actually on this carbon trajectory to reduce climate change, and they are, but in order to do that part, we need the consumers that don’t take too much, don’t waste it, eat healthy and diverse food, and really help your neighbor too. And then focus in on the other 60% of the footprint. That’s how the farmer can make a difference, right? They’re doing really crazy stuff on reducing carbon impacts. So make certain you understand about what farming is today.
Host Raj Daniels 09:56
So what are the farmers doing to reduce carbon impact?
Erin Fitzgerald 10:00
Well, so much there. So I always like to say that the original machine to take carbon out of the air is a plant. So let’s go back to sixth grade biology. The plant and soil, black carbon is plants from 1000s of years before that are emitted in the air. Gray carbon is when you take a water bottle and recycle it or put it into carpets; that keeps that carbon cycling, not virgin carbon in the air. And then green carbon, this is really coming from the sun through the power of photosynthesis and cycling. So our plants and soils can animals actually can suck down and store carbon.
We’re currently sequestering carbon in the atmosphere. And that’s like a savings bank underneath our feet for for our grandkids and kids. And then our farmers have already reduced their carbon footprint. And so we’re now about 8%. Now 8 to 10% of U.S. total carbon footprint. Then the question is, can they go more? And in fact, we now know that it’s possible that the American farmer is on a trajectory to halve its carbon footprint by 2030. There are new estimates out that the science is showing, again, through the power of figuring out our soils — we know more about Mars, than we do know about our soils — that we really can do a lot more. It could be that we’re minus 4% carbon, and that’s through all the stuff our farmers are already doing, and through science that is currently emerging that could help them.
So one of the things we’d like to say is if we can get more investment to support our farmers, more innovation in the sector, there’s a lot more potential that we can do. And, Raj, we were talking about that there’s these opportunities like brown gold. Manure is really amazing product. It’s got nitrogen and natural fertilizer, it can act as a fiber, it can create renewable energy. We’re seeing total innovation of — you were telling me about your orange peel. Everything that is a byproduct can also be a co-product in a unique way to unleash the power of a bioeconomy. So when you think about agriculture, if you look around your house, you want to kick out anything that’s fossil fuel-derived and find a biosource for it. And the more we can do that in agriculture, the more we can enable bioeconomy, then we eliminate fossil fuels.
Host Raj Daniels 12:31
Now going back to the Decade of Ag, can you give us a more in-depth explanation regarding that next 10 years?
Erin Fitzgerald 12:38
The Decade of Ag is all about really creating a common vision or a North Star for the food and ag sector. We have the Sustainable Development Goals, if you will, that’s almost a Rosetta Stone for all leaders. But we wanted to translate that into what the food and ag sector can stand for. So we now have about 150 CEOs who have endorsed it.
And we’re asking other organizations really to step up and really look at the vision, encourage anyone that’s listening right now that take a look at that vision, and then really ask how their organization, all the work that they’re doing, can lean in to that Decade of Ag. It also asks for leaders to work together in healthy competition. Every brand that’s out there, every organization, they don’t always have all the answers. And for this to really work, we have to work collaboratively and towards a bigger mission. And that’s really what the Decade of Ag is.
Host Raj Daniels 13:36
And if someone wants to get involved in Decade of Ag, how do they go about doing it?
Erin Fitzgerald 13:39
Yeah, you can get on USfarmersandranchers.org. And there are videos and definitely information there to sign up. I’d love for some new some new leaders and action just to step up after listening.
Host Raj Daniels 13:52
And I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. Now, you’ve been involved in, broadly speaking, the sustainability movement for, I think my research led me right, 15, 18 years; is that correct?
Erin Fitzgerald 14:03
Yes, it’s about 2007.
Host Raj Daniels 14:05
What prompted you to get involved in this movement?
Erin Fitzgerald 14:10
It was kind of by default. I was really originally hired for strategy, and I just kept coming back for the dairy sector. I read a book called Green to Gold. We were talking about it, Raj. And I really just felt that Andrew Winston, that new book was a model. And I looked at agriculture, and I said, “My gosh, we’ve got, again, that strength based approach. We’ve got soil, that’s an asset. We’ve got United States land, air and water, green spaces. We’ve got amazing people who care about this. How can we make this a real opportunity to solve some of the greatest challenges that people are asking for?”
So to basically take an issue and turn it into an opportunity, and Green to Gold was one of my starting books for that journey. And appreciative inquiry as well. I just, I love what I do. I love agriculture. I love working for farmers, I would say agri-culture, because it’s a culture-based sector. I love food, I love getting out on a farm. I love learning from my farmers, and I never looked back.
Everything in this sector is all about new. It’s all about old, too, old ways and new ways. It’s very cultural. When you meet our farmers, you kind of get it, it’s hard to understand. And unless you’ve been on a farm, maybe, or meet some of our farmers, and you kind of go, “Wow, okay, I see that there’s potential here, I get it.” So I take my job very seriously. And I think it’s at the heart of sustainability. Really, working with farmers. I know, Raj, we talked a lot about sustainability. I will say this, I think what I learned from my farmers is that everyone’s working on sustainability.
But really, it takes stewardship, and stewardship is the values and the commitment to want to leave this land better for the next generation. And sustainability. Well, that’s making the business model lineup. That’s putting economics into lineup for the community in the plant. That’s a tough business model, making able the sustainable business model, right? So I always was talking about it as stewardship and sustainability. And I learned that from my farmers, that it starts with stewardship first. And so for any leader that’s out there, it’s, you know, how do I take purpose-driven business models? How do I build those purpose-driven models? And how do I put that into the business?
Host Raj Daniels 16:42
I love the idea of sustainability and able business models. You’ve been with the US Farmers and Ranches in Action for I think, four years now. But we didn’t touch on what the organization actually does. Can you share what the organization actually does?
Erin Fitzgerald 16:56
Yeah, I would say what business we were — we were just talking about that as a board; we are in the business of leadership in action. So it’s a nonprofit. Our farmer-led — our board is made up of farmers; they’re elected farmer leaders from other farmers.
And then we invite other parts of the value chain to work with us. We have a whole science council that works on, “Wow do we work on the business of climate change and new innovations related to sustainability for farmers?” And we’ve been the secretariat really for this Decade of Ag. So as part of that, it’s really working with leaders on change management, on stepping up, on understanding that sustainability is a business pathway for the sector. And then underneath that, it’s not enough to have a vision, you have to have ways to achieve that vision.
And we’ve been working quite a bit on the economics of sustainability. So as you can imagine, the farming sector has gone through some tough times. Farmers make 14 cents of every dollar that’s sold to the consumer. There’s increasingly facing extreme and episodic events. And at the same time, there’s this amazing investor that is really looking at, “How can I make long-term investments in grain?” And we think that maybe the food and ag sector is the place for transformative investment, to enable the sector or the US economy to be net zero. So we’re raising awareness under the decade of Ag, we have a whole effort called transformative investment, which is really trying to get new forms of capital into the sector from the ESG investment space.
And then the other effort is called admission. So similar to the healthcare sector, when they said, “Hey, let’s go end cancer,” they stood up — sounds crazy to even say, right, but they started an organization called the Human Genome Project. And it was really about digitizing and unleashing the power of science. So similar, we are on a mission to figure out how to cycle and store carbon, and help our farmers adapt to climate change. So we have stood up an organization called Ag Mission, which is all about helping the science and the data structure to enable climate action and adaptation by 2030.
Host Raj Daniels 19:19
It doesn’t sound crazy at all. In doing research for the show, I was watching one of your interviews, and I think it was another lady on the panel with you for Cop26. And I took this note down: 20, or maybe you said it: 20,000 soil types in the US. Is that correct?
Erin Fitzgerald 19:34
Yes. So think about the biological complexity, and then you have different water zones, which are kind of like a zip code. They call it a hydrologic unit code. There’s just incredible complexity. And that’s why we always speak to climate-smart agriculture, Raj, because each farm even down to the sub acre is so unique that we really need to focus on the outcome. So the amount of data and science is just really, it’ll be a biological phenomenon that we need to unleash the amount of science.
Host Raj Daniels 20:07
Well, I think it’s moonshot comparable, but I think it’s even more important than the moonshot. Because after all, we live here, not there.
Erin Fitzgerald 20:14
Yes. I couldn’t agree more. We have so much potential, we say, just sitting right under our feet. And we have some amazing people that want to go do this like. We have our farmers care about it, too. So you know, that’s a win-win, right? When you have people-based movements, plus the potential. That’s exactly what you want in sustainability.
Host Raj Daniels 20:37
Now, perhaps a political hot point, but recently I interviewed a gentlemen, Roger Sorkin, I’ll be publishing his interview soon. He created a documentary called “Farm Free or Die.” And he’s trying to bring to light the issue of regenerative agriculture, and how to add it to the next farm bill, which I think is due out in 2023. Now, historically, my understanding is farmers have led or lean perhaps more conservative. This administration, last administration, how have you seen farmers perhaps change attitude from a political standpoint regarding administrations and climate change? I know it’s complicated, but just curious.
Erin Fitzgerald 21:20
We don’t do policy and for a really good reason — because there’s so much. There are so many groups that do. And in particular, as you mentioned, the Farm Bill, you know, there are over like 1200 different groups that just focus on food, farming and policy. And well, and we have some of those folks that are members too.
What we’re focused on are what are the innovation and what are the business models for 2030. So really kind of thinking about the science, the technology, in the innovation that’s really required that. We think that’s far beyond what will be in policy.
I can’t really speak to the policy except for, I will say this: through our work, we have really changed the awareness and perception of that agriculture can be a potential. We’re helping farmers understand their own agency, in this conversation on climate change, that they they can be a solution, and that they have an opportunity to be at the table. They have the best ideas typically on their farm.
So how do we work with them to enable that to be potential? And I think, to your point, this idea of regenerative agriculture, we actually talked about it in terms of giving you another word, Raj, you know, stewardship and sustainability, we restore and regenerate because restore is the human act. So that’s our farmers, and then regenerate is what nature does. And all of that equates to climate-smart agriculture, really working on those outcomes. So we’ve, it sounds like it’s great, I would love to hear more about it. I’m going to tune into your podcasts on this. But this is beyond policy, I would say. We need to work on the business models, we need to work on the science, technology, and farmer-centered business models that go far beyond policy. So that’s really where where we focus.
Host Raj Daniels 23:10
Now, you mentioned science, innovation and technology. Are there one or two technologies that have really piqued your interest?
Erin Fitzgerald 23:17
Well, there’s always a new way. I think you’ll see many of our farmers are innovating, and doesn’t always work on every farm. So that’s the other thing people need to understand. But cover cropping, for example, we’re seeing many of our farmers do a lot of innovations there. And it depends on the season, too, when they can get in and out of the field.
Obviously I’m a big fan of manure; I could talk about manure all day. I do think that there’s just so many opportunities related to creating renewable energy. Wind and solar are variable energy, but manure is 24/7. It acts as an almost battery that complements renewable energy. And then you get so many different benefits related to natural fertilizer on the farm. And then I would say my other one is, we’re seeing so much on drone technology and AI. Many of our farmers are down to the sub acreage and really getting hyper precise on some of the techniques there. So there’s just a lot of unbelievable technology that’s happening on our farms right now. And I can see that continuing to grow.
Host Raj Daniels 24:26
I think I heard you say once soil is the untapped frontier?
Erin Fitzgerald 24:30
Oh, absolutely. Um, yeah. Last year, that World Food Prize Laureate, Rattan Lal is just someone to watch. He is a soil expert, and there’s just so much potential in our soils. And it is a frontier. It really is. Biotech too, all the biotech.
Host Raj Daniels 24:55
Magic wand question. If you had a magic wand, and you could perhaps find a way, visit an education system to connect the education system back to farming so our next generations could be more engaged, learn more about where their food comes from, the importance of farming, what are perhaps one or two ideas that you’d have in order in order to be able to institute that?
Erin Fitzgerald 25:17
Well, I will tell you this is something every farmer you talk to is so passionate about, because they feel that as the American public moved away from the farms and got more urbanized, that they maybe got disconnected from the agrarian roots. And they really want the consumer to kind of connect, especially kids.
So I would would say get involved in 4H, get involved in FFA, work on that school garden. I know many of our farm groups really work locally with schools to get out and to get onto a farm.
If there are people, I can probably connect you to resources if that’s something that’s of interest. But even if when you grow something, you think about all the efforts in STEM, when you grow a plant, there’s just so much math, science, biology. Agriculture is so key to everything that we do in our economy, that it might have been overlooked.
So I would say start with 4H, start with FFA. Many of your farm groups, local farm groups can always connect a student and a teacher with resources. This is a personal passion of almost every firm I know. So they’d be willing to help.
Host Raj Daniels 26:31
So I’ve heard of FFA, Future Farmers of America. But you have to excuse the ignorance of an immigrant, what is 4H?
Erin Fitzgerald 26:38
4H is a youth about agriculture. And many of the 4H students, like a green four leaf clover, they learn how to speak and they learn how to take care of animals. Actually, the fastest growing chapters of 4H are in urban environments, believe it or not, so it’s kind of like a Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but really about agriculture and food.
Host Raj Daniels 27:01
You know, I think this whole idea about farming and agriculture is is fascinating. I mentioned, I think we were talking offline, I have three kids, and my middle one is really interested in just about unbridled curiosity. And every so often we’ll be eating a fruit or something and she’ll say, “Can we plant the seed?” We’ve had so many different seeds growing around the house, you know, sometimes we label them, sometimes we don’t, but just to allow them to see what that one seed can do. And you know what, essentially, the yield can be from one seed.
Erin Fitzgerald 27:29
She sounds like she’s gonna be perfect for 4H, I’m gonna connect you after this, Raj, with Jennifer.
Host Raj Daniels 27:34
That would be great. Now, you know, we mentioned you’ve been in this journey, 15, 17 years? What are some of the most valuable lessons you’d say you’ve learned about yourself?
Erin Fitzgerald 27:44
Oh, my gosh, I would say there’s always a way to build the business case. And really, the next question I always ask is really making certain that you bring the right people in the room, there’s so many groups that have one size fits all. I’m really big about creating the space for the collaboration. So I always think of like, “Who could help?”
I like to think about strength-based — so “somebody out there can help with this,” and really kind of thinking of the wisdom of the tribe, so to speak, which is really what the Decade of Ag is all about. And just to stay the course, this isn’t easy work. If you work in this space of sustainability, you’ll be good days and bad days, of course, people saying it’s not possible, or they really actually challenge you to make a better business case and to come up with a better solution. So stay the course, stay the course. Stay positive and stay the course; it’s such a long term effort. And you just got to stay the course. And I hope by 2030 and 2050, I’m in it to win it. You know, I know what my I’ve been put on this earth to do.
Host Raj Daniels 29:00
We’ve mentioned 2030 a few times and I have to apologize, I don’t know any Farming Magazine. So if let’s say Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, or pick a publication that you admire, were to write a headline or an article about Farmers and Ranchers in Action. What would you like the headline to read?
Erin Fitzgerald 29:17
In 2030. I would say “US Farmers and Ranchers in Action solve the trajectory for a net zero economy.” By that point — this is what’s so cool about carbon cycling, I’m geeking out. When we actually carbon cycle now, we actually pay it forward for 2040 and 2050. So investing now in our farmers has huge implications for 2040, 2050. So I would like to be up there in 2030 and saying the ag sector is what’s enabling the US economy to have a net-zero impact.
Host Raj Daniels 29:52
You know, what you said reminds me of that quote, I’m gonna paraphrase it but something along the lines of, if you’re sitting under the shade of a tree today, it’s because someone planted it 30 years ago?
Erin Fitzgerald 30:01
Yeah. Agricultural quote, right?
Host Raj Daniels 30:06
Absolutely, absolutely. Now, you already, when you were sharing your lessons learned, you shared some advice. But if you could, this could be professional or personal. But if you could share some advice, words of wisdom or recommendations with the audience, what would it be?
Erin Fitzgerald 30:21
I think the business models of the future are about sustainability. And maybe this seems like a buzzword, but I go back to students. I went to Notre Dame, and I was probably not the best of students. So they had, at the time ethics was was rolling out in business. And so they created it as a bonus question. And I spent all my time on that bonus question, you know, cuz I was like, “Oh, I just need bonus points.”
But you know, what? It is the business question. I think for all of us, as business leaders, there are our business models, but we have to figure out a way to build the business models of the future. And so if you’re a finance person, you better put your finance thinking cap on, because we need your strengths. If you’re a marketer, we need better storytellers. The new business models of the future are about sustainability. So what are you doing as a leader in action, to use your strengths? And to help figure this out? And it’s not a bonus question.
Host Raj Daniels 31:21
I love the idea of not being a bonus question, but I have to double click on this question around ethics. What drew you to that question? What is it about ethics that you like?
Erin Fitzgerald 31:31
Well, you know, in college, I guess I remember being a graduate. And, you know, that was during the crisis, if you remember Exelon and all that good stuff. And I remember thinking, “How could that happen?” You know, and we remember studying about whistleblowers and all that. So then businesses created 1–800 lines and ethics lines. At some point, you have to kind of get in there and go, what’s the business person that you are? You know, and I think that that’s something that we’re all wrestling with, right? And the business miles of the future? Ethics is part of that. Right? It’s putting your values to work?
Host Raj Daniels 32:13
Well, Erin, I think putting your values to work is a great place to leave off. I really appreciate the conversation with you. Again, I think I mentioned to you before we started rolling, I’ll say it out loud. I’m a big fan of the work you’re doing. And I look forward to catching up with you again soon.
Erin Fitzgerald 32:26
Well, thank you so much for having us on. Really appreciate it and I’m a fan of your work too. And this will not be one and done. I appreciate it.
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