USFRA: Version 2.0 Starts Now
Erin Fitzgerald started her new role as CEO of the U.S. Farmer and Ranchers Alliance this week, and she is trying to unify the organization’s eight-year effort to tell the story of agriculture in America.
The Ohio native is on a journey to unite the various stakeholders across agriculture and to elevate the organization beyond the “start-up mentality” that it’s had. She comes to USFRA from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an effort that brought the dairy industry together – noncompetitively. “I was carrying the milk pail” for the dairy industry, she says. Now, she gets to do that for all American farmers and ranchers – across all commodities.
Fitzgerald is determined to get USFRA a seat at the table for the conversation. “We in agriculture quite often haven’t been at the table. If you're not at the table, you’re lunch, right?”
She talked by phone with Successful Farming magazine on day 2 of her new job.
SF: What is the mission for USFRA?
EF: USFRA’s mission is to create a dialogue between farmers, consumers, and stakeholders on 21st-century food systems of the future. Consumers are asking questions: Where does my food come from? What are the different practices that are being used on the farm? What is sustainability, in particular, sustainable agriculture? Farmers have a long legacy of creating continuous improvement and commitment to the land. It's our job to really reinforce and be transparent and open and collaborative with consumers as they're on this journey of discovery.
SF: What about the role appeals to you?
EF: For the past 11 years, I worked to launch and create our sustainability commitment in the dairy industry, and I've worked with farmers and our board leadership at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. I was in many different stakeholder conversations with NGOs, consumer groups on panels, and getting asked a lot of great – and sometimes tough – questions. For lack of a better word, I was carrying the milk pail for many of the conversations in agriculture. So when this position became available, it was like, oh my gosh, I could make this a place where all of the brands, the major CPG (consumer package goods) companies, and consumers could come.
They don't know the difference actually between the species of agriculture or soybean or corn. They just think agriculture. And there needs to be one place. This is a tremendous opportunity to really unite agriculture, to find synergies.
SF: What will it take to unite agriculture?
EF: Number one, I think, is commitment. There are a lot of other ag groups out there and I think we all need to work together. It's going to come from that board leadership – that is, the farmer-elected leader of each check-off group sitting at the table.
Having a commitment to really work together is key. The consumer is moving faster than all of our groups can go. Really being united in having that commitment to stay together is so important. Having been on the other side, working with many of the major CPG companies, they're so confused by all the different agricultural groups and they can't keep up either. We don't need to compete. That's silly. We need to work together and be smarter with the resources we're putting into many of these organizations. We need to look for shared services and eliminate the confusion of all the different groups.
It's not that they're not doing great stuff. It's just confusing to serve the CPGs of the world. They don't know all these different groups. I just want one person they can call on to point them in the right direction to get the right resources. So more of a customer-service mentality, a consumer-service mentality that leverages all of the different groups is what will unite agriculture.
SF: Will you be visiting all of the stakeholders?
EF: I am open for all ideas. There will definitely be these moments in time. We have a lot of great trade group meetings that I would like to show up to and be invited if there are any of your readers who have opportunities like that. I’ll definitely get to the major ag events. I'm also going to go listen to some of the major food and nonprofit big events and make certain that we're there and saying, “Hey, there is a voice.”
I will definitely spend time with each of our board members. We have never turned away a committed volunteer on our board. Leadership is so committed and dedicated. It's really about what would it look like if we were truly working together. Many of these leaders are leaders in their own commodity sector. So I'll spend a lot of time working with them to make certain they are a fully functioning, amazing world-class board.
SF: What does success look like one year from now?
EF: There are some major agricultural food dialogues that are happening. There's plenty of these major conferences we would be getting asked to submit a session or to get farmers on the stage. I would definitely like to start seeing a commitment from agriculture, and that would mean we really do have a vision that we have all signed up on and that we're committed to. We started eight years ago, and it's hard to believe it was eight years ago. For the agriculture community at large, it’s kind of been a start-up. It was a concept, and it was saying we could all be together, united.
I think there have been some tremendous wins. We’ve produced some documentaries, we’ve had social media training. The team has done a fantastic job, but it has been a start-up. Now it's like, OK, it’s 2.0. We now know that we can work together. We now know that everyone’s at the table. So now, if we’re all sitting at the table, what can we really do together? What does it mean to be united and bold? At the end of this year, I want to see a recommitment to that. I would hope that we're all in it for 2.0.
Name: Erin Fitzgerald
Title: Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Hometown: Findlay, Ohio
College: Degree in finance from the University of Notre Dame
Previous roles: Senior vice president, global sustainability for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy
Fitzgerald is recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture, an Aspen Institute First Movers Fellow, and a Crain’s Chicago 40 under 40 recipient.
Boards: She serves on the boards of Sustainable America and Aspen Institute First Movers Fellowship Program. She is a board adviser to Food Waste Reduction Alliance, The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and National Agriculture Water Quality Assessment. She was a former expert in residence at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.