Equipping Next Gen Ag Leaders

Mentorship program: Equipping next gen ag and conservation professionals

Are you a graduate student interested in pursuing a career in agricultural conservation? 

Are you committed to environmental sustainability and social justice? 

Are you passionate about reaching underserved farmers? 

We are still accepting applications until August 12th – so get yours in ASAP! 

We are faced with the complex challenge of nourishing people while also nurturing the land that sustains us. The next generation of agricultural and conservation professionals will need to envision, embrace, and effectuate landscape-scale transformation to truly set us on the path of agricultural sustainability. This challenge requires us to fully and authentically leverage our diversity. Diversity leads to resilience in both ecological and human systems. Human diversity and diverse agricultural landscapes are not independent of one another: We must embrace them BOTH simultaneously. 

This mentorship program focuses on students of color and offers rich opportunities to connect and be in community with incredible mentors, farmers, and trainers, representing diverse ag communities across the Upper Midwest.

Engage with the grounded wisdom of experts in the field, deepen your awareness, and build your resume! The program includes:
  • A professional mentor for a series of 1:1 meetings
  • Farm tours led by farmers of color
  • A virtual training series and Q&A sessions with ag professionals
  • Regenerative ag conference attendance options
  • Science communication training and access to a professional communication coach/ editor – come away with a polished outreach product!
  • $1,000 stipend at program completion

This program is funded by a 2022 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Equity Conservation Agreement.

USDA is an equal opportunity employer, provider and lender.

Our incredible mentors!

Akilah Martin - AM Root Builders, Inc

Dr. Akilah Martin is first and foremost in partnership with soil and water. Akilah earned her BS degree in Soil Science from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and her Doctorate from Purdue University in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Akilah is abundantly living life through two core values: Freedom and Joy. To that end, she is a certified coach focusing on supporting clients in building high energy relationships. Dr. Martin’s passion work includes enhancing relationships of individuals and communities to environmental and natural resources. Her teaching and scholarly/research interests are centered in soil and water quality in urban communities. Current projects include: urban ag, food sovereignty, enhancing food access, life expectancy and health inequalities, installing rain gardens to create a “sponge town”, and building container gardens for “growing your own groceries.” Her areas of expertise include farmer outreach and adoption, equity and justice, policy, research, teaching, writing, publishing or other communications, soil health, and community engagement. In addition to her work, Dr. Martin loves soil, traveling, being creative with any space, reading, skateboarding, bike riding, hot yoga, and swimming.

Dr. Martin resides in Chicago. Through the mentorship program, she would like to create a high energy relationship where she and a student co-journey on their path of living a life of abundance. She’s hoping to connect with a learner who is self-aware, self-compassionate, and most of all living in harmony with the Earth.

Britt Moore - University of North Carolina Wilmington

Eric Britt Moore (Britt) is an assistant professor of environmental protection at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Britt’s professional experiences include soil science researcher at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, lecturer of agronomy and environmental science at Iowa State University, and cover crop specialist for Iowa State University Extension & Outreach. Britt also works to promote civic empowerment through youth and adult training programs centered on science literacy, environmental justice, and community gardening. Britt is a Chicago native, and his academic background includes a B.S. in Agricultural Science from Truman State University, a M.S. in Crop Production & Physiology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University, and a Ph.D. in Soil Physics from Iowa State University. Britt’s areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, on-farm conservation, equity and justice, research, teaching, writing, publishing or other communications, cover crops, soil health, environmental benefits of cropping systems, and community engagement.

Celize Christy - Practical Farmers of Iowa

As an advocate for the voices of marginalized, underrepresented and systemically underserved farmers, Celize comes to farmer-led work with eight years of experience and a passion to build a more equitable and just food system. In her current position with Practical Farmers of Iowa, Celize crafts farmer-led events focused on aspiring and beginning farmers. She also helps feature beginning farmers in PFI media; engages beginning and aspiring farmers through educational events and farmer-led programming; and stewards PFI’s Agricultores Latinos program, crafting Spanish-language events and outreach. Celize is based at the PFI office in Ames, IA, and her work serves farmers across the state of Iowa and the greater Midwest region.

Prior to her work with Practical Farmers, Celize took her curiosity about farmer livelihoods and rural community development worldwide, including working on a sustainability project with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome and working with poultry producers in East Africa (Uganda and Rwanda). Celize also serves as a board co-chair for the Women Food and Agricultural Network and a co-chair for the Diversity Committee for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. When she’s not working, Celize finds joy in exploring local businesses and shops, drinking ginger tea and playing with her miniature pinscher pup, Luz.

Celize’s areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, farmer outreach and adoption, equity and justice, policy, research, agroforestry, livestock, perennial crops, environmental benefits of cropping systems, cross-sector collaboration, and community engagement. As a mentor, Celize hopes to provide a space for a BIPOC student to openly explore and navigate the world of agriculture, conservation and food systems, offering a sounding board to guide and support a mentee in professional ideas and goals. 

Update –  Celize has recently taken a new position with HEAL Food Alliance! An updated bio is coming soon, but in the meantime Celize is still based in Iowa with deep connections to Midwest ag, and remains excited to serve as a mentor for this program.

Donale Richards - Madtown Food Services

Donale was born in Madison, WI and raised by many family members from America, Jamaica, and the Gambia. He received a B.S. in Biological Systems Engineering from UW-Madison in 2017 and has since focused his work on educating communities on food and agricultural systems. He started Madtown Food Services in 2019 to help family members turn their passion for cooking into a business. One day, he hopes to operate a farm-to-table restaurant and help other entrepreneurs along the way. Donale also works part-time for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute where he researches federal and state policies related to the Farm Bill. He often teaches beginning and underserved farmers about USDA grant programs and connects them to other people and resources that can expand their farming operation. Based in Madison but working throughout the Midwest, Donale’s areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, farmer outreach and adoption, equity and justice, policy, teaching, soil health, and community engagement.

Through the mentorship program, Donale hopes to provide insight on career and entrepreneurship opportunities in food and agriculture, specifically to those interested in strengthening local and regional food systems. A quote he often reflects on in his food and justice work: “The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?” – Angela Davis

Jose Franco - USDA ARS Dairy Forage Research Center

Dr. Franco is an agroecologist with the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center (DFRC) in Madison, WI. His research focus is at the intersection of cover crop systems and precision agriculture. He explores methods to increase cover crop performance and inclusion in dairy forage rotations. An essential part of this work is evaluating value-added benefits of cover crops in addition to the potential suite of ecosystem services they provide. Additionally, Dr. Franco’s research strives to create multifunctional agricultural landscapes through the use of cover crops and alternative forages, and utilizes a systems framework to evaluate the combination of precision and conservation management practices and their impact on long-term dairy system sustainability. Outside of work, Dr. Franco enjoys exploring new areas, especially the countryside. He’s particularly fond of foreign crime dramas (British especially), biking and kayaking, chocolate and exploring new flavors, and visiting antique shops for unusual and rustic gems!

Dr. Franco’s areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, equity and justice, research, teaching, writing and publishing, agroforestry, cover crops, small grains or annual rotations, perennial forage, soil health, environmental benefits of cropping systems, and cross-sector collaboration. Through the mentorship program, he is hoping to share his own experiences with students considering graduate school or careers in agricultural-related fields. He notes, “I believe I can provide a unique perspective given my diverse background, not having grown up in agriculture, and having taken a circuitous path to my career in research. In terms of a mentee match, my only request is that the student be curious and come with a lot of questions!”

Serge Koenig - Sauk County Land Resources and Environment Department

Serge Koenig has been a Sauk County natural resource professional for twenty-seven years. He has a Watershed Management degree and a Soils Minor from University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Serge has been working with landowners and various organizations in Sauk County to sustain and improve its natural resources. He is a tireless advocate of managed rotational grazing as a tool for regenerating our soils, water and human resources. In his free time he loves spending time with his family gardening, traveling, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and coaching his two boys’ soccer and basketball teams.

Serge works in the Baraboo/Sauk County area in Southcentral/Southwestern Wisconsin. His areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, farmer outreach and adoption, on-farm conservation, equity and justice, farm economics/markets, livestock, perennial forage or perennial grains or biomass, soil health, environmental benefits of cropping systems, and community engagement. Through the mentorship program, Serge hopes to help ignite a passion for environmental protection in the next generation while helping a mentee figure out their meaning and purpose and live their life accordingly.

Piero Taico - Downtown Springfield, Inc

Piero Taico is the Assistant Director of Downtown Springfield, Inc in Springfield, Illinois. A long-time champion for all things local food, Piero is responsible for Springfield’s Old Capitol Farmers Market. Prior to DSI, Piero served as the Communications Coordinator for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, aiding in their shift towards statewide organizing – advocating for agriculture that works for farmers, communities and the environment. While working for the Alliance, he visited farmers and farmers markets from Carbondale to Chicago, telling the story of revitalizing Illinois’ regional food system to help shift policy and empower local farmers. Piero has also served on the Diversity Committee for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. More info coming soon.


Key Dates

Application deadline: August 1st, 2022

Mentee selection: mid-late August, 2022

Program start date: fall, 2022

Program end date: early summer, 2023

About This Program

Who is this program for?

This is a program for graduate students or similar-stage emerging leaders interested in careers in agriculture and conservation. We’re looking for students and leaders who are committed to reaching underserved farmers and passionate about creating a more equitable and sustainable agricultural system across the upper Midwest. This program focuses on students of color enrolled in graduate programs in agriculture, conservation or related fields (Masters or PhD) or similar-stage emerging leaders in the US Upper Midwest, particularly in IA, IL, MN, WI and MO. Do you see yourself as a next gen ag and conservation professional? This program could be for you!

What are the requirements for this program?

Application requirements. There are no hard-and-fast prerequisites for this program. If you share our belief that representation matters across agriculture and conservation professionals and you’re committed to improving access to resources and support for underserved farmers, we’d love for you to apply to this mentorship program. We’re looking for program participants that think big-picture about the environmental and social impacts of agriculture and are familiar with the agricultural landscape of the US upper Midwest. The host organizations, Green Lands Blue Waters and the Mississippi River Network, work to transform the ag landscape through farm practices that keep more of the ground covered year round (continuous living cover); implemented in ways that serve the well-being of farmers, communities, land, water, and wildlife. You can tell us more about your interest and background, goals and aspirations in the application form.

Program requirements. Accepted applicants will be expected to participate in all elements of the program, beginning Fall 2022 and ending in early Summer 2023.

Program Details and Benefits

This program has several components. Read more about each of the elements below.

Virtual training series with Q&A sessions with ag professionals

Throughout the program, four virtual trainings will be offered. Each of these trainings will be led by accomplished professionals with deep content expertise, as well as lived experience as a person of color working in the predominantly white fields of ag and conservation in the Upper Midwest. Sufficient time will be provided for Q&A with each training to ensure that students have time to engage with the trainers. Topics of the four trainings are below and more information will be added as details are confirmed. 

Training 1 – Addressing Local Ag & Natural Resource Issues

Training 2 – Solutions to Frequent & Changing Weather Patterns through Climate Smart Agriculture

Training 3 – Preparing for a Career in Ag & Natural Resources

Training 4 – Effectively Communicating Science & the Importance of Ag & Natural Resource Issues

Farm visits led by farmers of color

The program includes several options to visit farms across the Upper Midwest. Students will be invited to visit the farm closest to their location. Site visits will be hosted by farmers of color. We’ll tour the farm and hear about each farmer’s commitment to the land and have a candid discussion about all aspects of their farming experience.

Minnesota. In Minnesota, we’ll visit with Moses and Lonah Momanyi. In addition to running their own successful farm (Dawn 2 Dusk Farm), they founded the organization Kilimo Minnesota in 2020. Kilimo Minnesota is an organic incubator farm with a mission to empower emerging farmers of African descent, socially and economically, through mentorship, farmland access navigation and community building. Kilimo Minnesota offers a three to five year hands-on training program that includes farming experience, group classes, networking and one-on-one business mentoring. The program, founded by and for farmers of African descent, is uniquely situated to give emerging farmers an opportunity to learn growing techniques and business skills in a new climate, country and culture while in a comfortable peer setting. Moses also works closely with another budding organization, the African Growers and Producers Alliance.

Iowa. In Iowa we’ll visit a regenerative organic farm bringing humanely-raised meats and eggs to consumers. Jóia Food Farm is a diverse livestock and organic grain farm located near Charles City in Northeast Iowa owned and operated by farmers Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin. They left the bright lights, big city of Los Angeles in 2010 out of a desire to connect with food and to live a life filled with intention and genuine purpose. A life that integrates the land, family, community, the work they do, and the food they raise. Wendy and Johnny are advocates of nutrient dense slow food, from raising it to preparing it. They believe in the principles of agro-ecology, with a focus on biodiversity, the sharing of animals and plants working together to create healthy soils, healthy animals, healthy plants, a healthy environment and most importantly, healthy food. They raise heritage pigs, sheep, turkeys, ducks and chickens. They grow certified organic grains and lush pastures and use regenerative methods to grow the livestock in the soils and plant trees, including fruit and nut trees and bushes annually to increase the diversity on the farm.

Wendy is originally from Iowa, but left the farm she grew up on to go to college, move to Los Angeles and fulfill a career in the fashion industry. After 18 years away from the farm, she returned with an entirely new appreciation for the family farm and a vision for its future. A farm is a place to grow roots figuratively and literally, and she is making every effort to do so. Wendy helps manage her family farm in addition to implementing the strategies and new ideas on the farm she and Johnny have made home. She loves learning and continually finding new and better ways to grow soil, food, awareness and community. Wendy is also active as a Climate Land Leader, connecting Iowa livestock farmers to markets through 99 counties, and as a board member at Practical Farmers of Iowa. She’s featured in PFI’s feature length film Livestock on the Land.

Regenerative ag conference attendance options

Funds are available to cover registration and mileage for each student to attend one (nearby or virtual) sustainable agriculture or natural resource conservation conference/ workshop in the region. Choosing which event to attend and arranging logistical will be determined between each student and the program coordinator, but potential events might include the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual conference; Grassworks Grazing Conference; Savanna Institute’s Perennial Farm Gathering, 17th Annual Emerging Farmers Conference; Food Sovereignty Symposium and Festival, MOSES (Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service) annual conference; the Midwest Soil Health Summit, The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival; events hosted by the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry, NCAT/ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, or similar events.

Professional communications training & coach - come away with a polished outreach product!

One of the four virtual trainings discussed above will be focused on Effectively Communicating Science and the Importance of Natural Resource Issues. 

Planned topics featured in this training include:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Honing your key messages – accessibility without ‘dumbing down’
  • Tone and language to get your point across
  • Making it relatable – using visuals, analogies, on-the-ground examples, stories and humor

Building off of this training, each program participant will be responsible for identifying a final communication output to develop over time and finalize by the end of the program. This could be a blog post, an op-ed for a local paper, a podcast, a research brief, a farmer interview or other human interest story, an infographic or another output you dream up! You will be provided with professional coaching/ editing to help shape your piece and program staff will assist with basic formatting/ graphic design as appropriate as well as working with you to develop a promotions plan for the piece.

$1,000 stipend at program completion

Program participants will receive $1,000 in stipend funds at the completion of the program. These funds include $600 associated with the completion of a final communications output and an additional $400 with the completion of the full program, including participation in an end-of-program evaluation.

Background on Host Orgs

Who is hosting this program?

This mentorship program is run by Green Lands Blue Waters and the Mississippi River Network and would not be possible without the incredible mentors, farmers and trainers participating.

Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW) is a vision for profitable agriculture based on keeping the soil covered productively year-round: farming with Continuous Living Cover. GLBW is primarily a networking organization with a broad range of partners – universities, researchers, educators, producer associations, environmental groups, businesses, nonprofits, governmental agencies, and practitioners. GLBW acts as a connector, collaborator, convener, and communicator serving multiple partners and focusing on opportunities and challenges that our partners identify but cannot tackle alone. 

The Mississippi River Network (MRN) is a coalition of over 60 organizations dedicated to creating a healthier Mississippi River by working for the well-being of the people, land, water, and wildlife of America’s largest watershed. We inspire people to restore and protect the natural, recreational, and cultural treasures of the River and utilize grassroots organizing and nonpartisan education of decision-makers as pathways for achieving this mission.

Why this program?

Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW) and the Mississippi River Network (MRN) are committed to diversifying the crops we see on the Midwestern agricultural landscape and the people involved with all aspects of agriculture. We believe in a relational, reciprocal and networked approach to the work we do. We take a long-game perspective in transforming agriculture, including by increasing representation, building partnerships, and creating conditions for social and environmental change. This mentorship program is one immediate step in the creation of pathways toward long-term transformation. 

You can read more about GLBW’s human-centered approach here: Our Journey to a Transformed Agriculture through Continuous Living Cover; Why continuous living cover crops and cropping systems, and a human-centered, equity-focused approach to their implementation, are imperative and exciting, and how this can look on the agricultural landscape.

To hear directly from student voices in our network, check out the Civic Scientist series.

For further resources, dig into MRN’s Anti-Racism Resources Hub.

I still have a question – who can I contact?

You can contact GLBW Associate Director Aaron Reser. areser@umn.edu