Equipping Next Gen Ag Leaders


Congratulations Fall 2024 Cohort! Applications open for Spring 2025.

Congratulations to the incredible mentee cohort chosen to participate in this program for Fall 2024. Scroll down to learn more.

Applications for another cohort of this program beginning in Spring 2025 are open on a rolling bases. Are you a grad student or similar stage emerging leader interested in a career in agriculture and conservation? Are you ready to explore your purpose and possible career paths in a supportive environment that includes one-on-one mentorship and professional trainings? Do you want to foster a sense of belonging and community with an inspiring circle of peers? Apply now for the Spring 2025 cohort! We would be delighted to have you as a part of our exceptional community of mentees!

If you know someone who sounds like a good fit for this program, please send them this website and encourage them to apply!
To see fall 2024 mentees scroll down and for mentee profiles from a previous cohort of this program, click here.

The Equipping Next Gen Ag and Conservation Professionals Mentorship Program

As we journey to nourish people and maintain ecosystems for generations to come, connecting innovative and indigenous/ancestral/traditional knowledge in the agricultural and conservation landscape is critical. The challenges we are facing are an extreme threat to the Earth and its entities that sustain our way of life and being. The current and next generation of agricultural and conservation professionals and enthusiasts 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 a broad range of ideas, practices, and ways of making meaning to build 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 2024-2025 mentorship program will support two  cohorts of learners from all walks of life connecting with incredible mentors, farmers, and trainers representing diverse ag communities across the Upper Midwest.

Details on application timing

There will be two mentee cohorts accepted into this program, with 12 mentees in each cohort (24 mentees total). The first cohort will run from fall 2024-spring 2025. The second cohort will run from spring -summer 2025. Applications for the fall 2024 cohort are due June 16th, 2024. (If you are interested in the spring 2025 cohort you may apply using the same application and indicate spring 2025 interest.)

Application Deadline Acceptance Notice Program Start Program End Retreat
Cohort 1 June 23rd, 2024 July 2024 August 27, 2024 May 2025 Sept 21-22, 2024
Cohort 2  Rolling deadline Dec 2024 January 2025 September 2025 Tbd – spring or summer 2025

Congrats to our previous cohort!

Thank you and congratulations to the incredible mentees and other partners in the previous cohort. You can find out more about the previous program on the archived website here, read final mentee communication projects on the 1 Mississippi site, and view videos and photos here of mentees Lia Carrillo, Guolong Liang, Gurparteet Singh and Aaryn Wilson presenting their personal reflections on the cultural roots of conservation at the 2023 Soil & Water Conservation Society Annual Conference in Des Moines, IA.

Why this program?

Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW) is committed to diversifying the crops 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  increasing inclusivity , building partnerships, and co-creating conditions for social and environmental change. This mentorship program is one immediate step in the creation of pathways toward long-term transformation. 

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

USDA is an equal opportunity employer, provider and lender.

Our incredible mentors!

We are in the process of continuing to add more mentors to this roster – keep an eye on this page for updates!

Celize Christy - HEAL Food Alliance

Celize is an Organizer at HEAL Food Alliance, where she connects members to engage in campaigns and co-leads HEAL’s FACE (Fighting Against Corporate Evil) working group. Celize came into the work of organizing and food and farm policy work by way of previously working on farmer-led education programming at Practical Farmers of Iowa, advocating and coalition building with BIPOC farmers in Iowa and broader Midwest alongside sustainable agriculture organizations. Prior to working in the Midwest Celize worked on international development projects in East Africa focused on evaluating the impact of integrating small livestock in community development projects. 

Celize earned her B.S. in Animal Science and Global Resource Systems with a minor in Spanish from Iowa State University and a M.S. in Rural Sociology and International Agricultural Development from the Pennsylvania State University. Celize’s areas of expertise include Midwest agriculture, farmer outreach, food sovereignty and justice, policy, research, agroforestry, livestock, environmental benefits of cropping systems, cross-sector collaboration, and community engagement. As a mentor, Celize hopes to provide an affirming space for BIPOC students to feel empowered to explore their ideas/goals; while navigating how to hold those in power accountable advocating for change they want to see in our food and on the landscape.

Omar de Kok-Mercado - Mad Lands Midwest Regional Manager

Omar de Kok-Mercado is a soil scientist and fervent advocate for thriving ecosystems and flourishing communities. With a Master’s degree in Soil Microbiology and Biochemistry and a Bachelor’s in Agroecology from Iowa State University, Omar has devoted his career to weaving perennial ecosystems into the fabric of agriculture. Currently the Midwest Regional Manager at Mad Agriculture and formerly an Agroforestry Technical Service Provider with Savanna Institute, Project Coordinator and Creative Director for STRIPS and C-CHANGE at ISU, Soil Conservationist for USDA-NRCS, and Research Technician for the USDA Forest Service and the National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, Omar attributes his accomplishments in various high-impact projects to the inspirational colleagues and mentors he has collaborated with.

Jose Franco - USDA ARS Dairy Forage Research Center

Jose FrancoDr. 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-nine 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 basketball.

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.

E. Britt Moore - University of North Carolina Wilmington

Britt MooreEric 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.

Janet Zintambila

Mrs. Zintambila is also known to many as Mama Chiko, Mama Mboga, Mama Janet, Ms. JZ, Mama Mahindi and Mama Wetu. Born and raised in Kenya, East Africa, she migrated to the USA in 1979 in pursuit of further education at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mt. Pleasant IA. She subsequently obtained her Master’s degree in Counselor Education from Western Illinois University, Macomb IL. Living in the Midwest, a rich agricultural area, Mrs. Zintambila’s love for growing crops, in particular those native to her home country, Kenya, has evolved. Her late husband Professor Dr. Henry Zintambila and her sons Chiko Zintambila and Vincent Airo Mmata have worked side by side during the growing season helping in many aspects. Currently, her main crop, White Green Maize used for roasting, boiling and making Githeri a famous traditional Kenyan dish makes many ethnic families in the USA happy. Mrs. Zintambila resides in Normal, Illinois. She also works for Homes of Hope Inc in Normal.

Esther S Durairaj - Michael Fields Agriculture Institute

Esther S Durairaj is the Education Director and a Research Agronomist at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, East Troy, Wisconsin. She obtained her Bachelors and Masters in Agriculture in India, and a doctorate in Agronomy, and began her career as a Scientist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in India . Always a proponent of sustainability, she spent her years in research working on low input sustainable agricultural systems and practices. She has great experience working on a variety of crops like rice, millets, soybeans, sugarcane, etc. As a research agronomist at MFAI, she works on organic systems and continues to engage in crop research through cover crops, industrial hemp (CBD, grain & fiber hemp) and millets, encouraging diversity in organic cropping systems, and resource conservation. 

Currently she holds the role of Education Director at MFAI. She engages with the women of Wisconsin as the Program Director of the Wisconsin Women in Conservation (WiWiC) Program Through the WiWiC project, she is excited to work with women farmers and landowners in Wisconsin bringing knowledge and resources for implementing conservation practices, all the while developing local networks to walk together in conservation. She also co-leads the Minnesota Women in Conservation, a project that is an offshoot of WiWIC. Esther also plays a big role in working with Urban Community Gardens of Milwaukee, is an experienced Grant writer, and an educator of climate action, soil health and sustainability.


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. The 2024-2025 program cohorts* will be made up of 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. The many ways you may self-identify are welcome in this program. If you have questions about whether this program is a fit for you, feel free to get in touch with Green Lands Blue Waters Associate Director Aaron Reser – areser@umn.edu.

*Note that there will be two mentee cohorts accepted into this program, with 12 mentees in each cohort (24 mentees total). The first cohort will run from fall 2024-spring 2025. The second cohort will run from spring -summer 2025. Applications for the fall 2024 cohort are due June 16th, 2024. (If you are interested in the spring 2025 cohort you may apply using the same application and indicate spring 2025 interest.)

Program Details and Benefits

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


The core of this program is an eight-month mentorship experience with a dedicated mentor. Each cohort member will be matched with a mentor in a related field for a series of one-on-one meetings over the course of the program. In addition, Dr. Akilah Martin will weave group mentoring opportunities across the other elements of the program for more chances to reflect and grow individually and together as a community.

Training series with Q&A sessions with ag professionals

Six trainings will be offered over the course of the program. Each training 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 mentees have time to engage with the trainers. Topics of the six trainings are below. Most will be offered virtually, with some training taking place at an in-person retreat.

Technical trainings

  1. Addressing local natural resource issues – soil health, agricultural conservation, and continuous living cover
  2. Solutions to frequent and changing weather patterns through climate-smart agriculture and conservation activities
  3. Policies and programs in ag conservation to reach historically underserved farmers

Professional development trainings 

  1. Setting the stage for your career journey – mentor/mentee mapping exercises
  2. Affirming your career in natural resources – vocational development, job searches, tips
  3. Finding your voice and your role in Midwest ag conservation

Professional Science Communications Workshop

Effectively communicating science and the importance of natural resource issues is a key skill for any ag and conservation leader. Led by Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy of Black Flower Writing Services in 2022, this workshop will focus in 2024 on public engagement and the importance of effectively communicating ag and natural resource challenges and solutions. Planned topics featured in this training include:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Knowing yourself – speaking effectively in your own voice
  • 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

Cohort retreat

We are thrilled to introduce a two-day in-person retreat (Fall 2024 for the first cohort and Winter 2025 for the second cohort) with a local farm visit/immersion. The in-person retreat is designed to elevate relationship building, professional development, technical training, deep reflection, well-being and wholeness, and group mentoring via shared lived experiences. We will ask you, what makes you come alive?

A note on logistics: retreat details are currently being arranged and the cohort 1 retreat is planned for September or October 2024. We will do our best to accommodate mentee schedules and ensure cohort members can participate. The 2-day retreat will be led by Dr. Akilah Martin with support from Green Lands Blue Waters staff and close collaboration with our farm host. Stay tuned for more info!

Farmer perspectives learning event

Mentees from the previous cohort reported that one of their favorite aspects of the program was spending time with farmers. We will again host a farmer-perspectives learning event to hear directly from farmers about their experiences, touching specifically on experiences accessing USDA NRCS and other conservation programs. Mentees will leave the training with an increased understanding of how to reach farmers who have been historically underserved in their career.

To see a glimpse of the farmers that participated previously with this program, link here.

Professional Networking Opportunities

Green Lands Blue Waters and Dr. Akilah Martin can help connect you  to an incredible network of ag conservation organizations, professionals, and opportunities across the Upper Midwest. A monthly digest of opportunities – including conferences, webinars, field days, fellowship or award programs, jobs, and research opportunities – will be shared with cohort members. As we get to know mentees and their interests, Green Lands Blue Waters and AM Root Builders Inc. staff will make personal connections between cohort participants and individuals in their networks for job shadowing or informational interviews to help connect mentees to these rich professional networks. Staff will also work with our networks to explore access to scholarships or comped registration to conferences such as the Emerging Farmers Conference or the Perennial Farm Gathering for cohort members.

What costs does this program cover?

This program covers roundtrip travel and lodging and meals at an in-person retreat.

Background on Host Orgs

Who is hosting this program?

This mentorship program is hosted by Green Lands Blue Waters and Dr. Akilah Martin – AM Root Builders, Inc. The program would not be possible without the many incredible mentors, farmers and trainers participating.

Dr. Akilah Martin - AM Root Builders, Inc.

Dr. Akilah Martin is the daughter of Laurel and James Martin. She is first and foremost in partnership with soil and water. She earned a BS degree in Soil Science from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and her Doctorate from Purdue University in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Dr. Martin previously held an Associate Professor and Associate Dean position at DePaul University – School for New Learning, where she was an award-winning facilitator of learning who engaged in scholarly pursuits and mentored adult learners for over 13 years. 

Her professional interests include enhancing individuals and communities’ relationships to environmental and natural resources via the interrogation of the kaleidoscope of the term justice. Her teaching, learning, and scholarly/research interests are holistically centered in connecting people and communities to the multifaceted relationship between soil and water. How she journeys through, on, and with the Earth defines who she is and the interconnectedness of her existence. She strives to have a vibrant, kinetic, energetic, and symbiotic relationship with the Earth and its entities. 

In 2021, Dr. Martin completed a yearlong detail with the Department of Defense on the Climate Action Team as a Community Resilience and Environmental Justice Analyst. Her permanent position is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an Interdisciplinary Planner, enhancing collaborative relationships among individuals and communities to environmental and natural resources. 

Dr. Martin is a resourceful civically engaged citizen scholar who is passionate in partnering with communities in seeking innovative and creative transformative strategies to reimagine our relationships to place and each other for social and ecological flourishing. To that end, she engages in a multitude of community projects including food sovereignty, food access, equity and justice via AM Root Builders, Inc, Roots Watering Hole Podcast, Re-Rooting Kinship Project, Chicago Grows Food, Advocates for Urban Ag, and Friends of the Forest Preserves. To that end, Dr. Martin was awarded the 2023 BEYA Science Spectrum Trailblazer award.

Finally, but not all, Dr. Martin is abundantly living life through 2 core values: Freedom and Joy. To that end, she is a certified coach specializing in building vivacious and energetic relationships with oneself, others. As a Certified Professional Coach, she leverages her passion for the Earth by supporting and encouraging her clients to channel their internal power through a symbiotic relationship with nature and themselves.

You can also find out more about Akilah’s contributions at:





Green Lands Blue Waters

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. 

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 previous mentees in this program as well as an earlier Civic Scientist series.

Gratitude and acknowledgement to the Mississippi River Network (MRN), in particular the fabulous Maisah Khan and Kelly McGinnis, for originally envisioning this program with GLBW and co-designing the first cohort.

I still have a question – who can I contact?

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