Sara Smelser has always had a nostalgic love for the farm. She grew up on one, but her career aspirations were to be a doctor. She took interest in science in her school years, continuing on to the University of Missouri where she earned a degree in biochemistry in 2013. Her plan was to attend medical school.
Fast forward four years, five states, four job rotations and countless mentors later, Sara is an agronomist for Winfield US, the crop inputs business of Land O’Lakes, Inc. and United Suppliers. And while some would consider agriculture vastly different than medicine by trade, Sara disagrees.
“It’s simple. I wanted to help others do the things they love to do,” says Sara. “And in both industries, the work is impacting the lives of people and their families. The transition into agriculture was so incredibly easy because the people I spend every day with have an undeniable passion. They’re feeding the world–and they’re trusting me to help them find ways to do it better.”
Growing up ag
Sara grew up on her family’s crop farm in southeastern Missouri. All around were fields full of corn, cotton, wheat, milo and soybeans. Like any farm-kid would attest, she grew up riding in the tractor with her dad before being invited to help with cotton harvest around her sixth birthday. It’s a memory she holds special to this day.
“As soon as my little arms could reach the levers, I was allowed to run the module builder…and getting to help my dad was a really big deal,” says Sara. “Even though cotton trailers were quickly becoming a thing of the past, my dad would bring one home and we’d have ‘cotton rides’ with friends. We’d lie on the freshly picked ‘cloud’ of cotton looking up at the stars with the distinct smell of harvest lingering in the air. Looking back, it was very whimsical—and that’s really when my love of ag began.”
At the same time, Sara sparked an interest in science. From her experience with a rare blood virus to surgery to align her strabismus (crossed-eyes), she spent lots of time at St. Louis Children’s Hospital–twice a year for 17 years–observing countless doctors and ophthalmologists take serious care and precision in their work.
“My last eye surgery was at 17. My ophthalmologist was always asking if I was going to be a surgeon. It wasn’t until that last surgery that I decided,” says Sara. “[because of strabismus] I had spent so much time explaining to my classmates that I was ‘Indeed looking at them.’ It may sound petty that it bothered me so much, but I had been taught to look people in the eye my whole life…and I couldn’t. Dr. Tychsen’s skills positively changed my life after that surgery, and I wanted to do the same for others. That’s why I went pre-med.”
Sara studied biochemistry at the University of Missouri. A pre-med student, but not quite ready to take the MCAT, she’d applied to countless internships along the medical route. While WinField wasn’t on her radar (yet), it was on her friend’s. Since Sara knew about WinField—her dad had an Answer Plot® on their family’s farm for years—she helped that friend connect with Darrin Holder, an agronomist for WinField.
“My friend took another job while I was in the process of determining what I wanted to do. I had always loved ag, but never saw myself going back to the farm,” says Sara. “When the opportunity became fair game, I thought, ‘What the heck! Why not?’ interviewed with Darrin and was offered the job.”
It was a twist of fate—Sara, an aspiring doctor taking an ag internship with WinField—and she hasn’t looked back.
Getting a little dirty
During her first summer with WinField, Sara was deep in the fields digging soybean and corn roots in eight southern states as a corn and soybean characterization intern. She was alone a lot, driving a ton, which for some might not sound too fun. But, she was loving it.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why in the world do I love digging in the dirt?’” she laughs. “But that first summer opened my eyes to the industry. The people are so welcoming. I woke up every day happy and ready to work. That’s something that’s invaluable—to feel such pride in what you’re doing every single day.”
Her team would tease her, “We’re not letting you go to med school!” they’d say. At first, she’d brush it off, thinking to the fall and studying for the MCAT. But as time went on, Ag became plan A and med school plan B.
By the end of the summer, Sara interviewed for the WinField Associate Program. With just three months of experience beyond growing up on a farm, Sara wasn’t accepted, but was encouraged to apply for a second internship for the next summer.
As a soon-to-be post-grad, Sara took a risk, put all her eggs in one basket and accepted an intern position as an agronomy trainee in South Dakota. There, “a moon away from home,” Sara says she refined her knowledge and passion for agronomy. This second successful summer subsided with a call and offer from the WinField Associate Program, to which she happily accepted.
On the move
Established in 2009, the WinField Associate Program places about 25 recent grads into the WinField business for a two-year rotation. Most are former WinField interns, like Sara, and use the time to learn about the roles they’d like to pursue as their career—a critical component when the pursuit of ag careers is lacking among recent graduates. The program also helps connect experienced team members with less-experienced talent.
“When you can get energetic talent with lots of new ideas working with someone who has vast professional experience who can help build relationships at the co-op level, it’s just magic,” says Lori Vogeltanz, associate and intern program manager for WinField. “It’s a recipe for success.”
Associates are assigned to a Land O’Lakes member-cooperative for one year where they learn from a WinField mentor about how the retail agronomy world functions. Eric Kennedy, retail development manager in western Kentucky, was Sara’s mentor while she worked at Midsouth Farmers Cooperative, a locally-owned co-op with eight locations in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
”I think it’s a great program to get good talent fresh out of school,” says Eric. “A lot of times, recent grads don’t have a lot of work experience. It’s a nice transition to give them time to learn our system, our products and how to work with our people. And Sara, she never hesitated to ask questions…you could tell she really cares.”
Sara took Eric’s sentiment and ran with it. From learning where she could plug in and add value to building relationships with growers and sellers to learn what they’re dealing with, “I was learning what it’s like to be at the farm gate so I could translate that into my WinField role,” says Sara.
After their time at the co-op, associates choose a role they’re interested in pursuing after they’ve completed the program. With her love for science and details, Sara took the technical route and moved to Houston, Texas, for her second year as an agronomist. Out of her comfort zone and into the big city, she handled the day-to-day agronomy duties across central and south Texas. She spent a year in Houston, and loved it. But as if three states weren’t enough, another opportunity came knocking.
Making jobs easier
In August 2015, Sara moved to Springfield, Illinois where she works as a full-time agronomist supporting the northern Illinois area. She spends a lot of time teaching and sharing technical information with her sales team, accounts and growers. The best part for Sara is asking the questions to figure out how to improve growers’ operations.
“It’s not about me telling them what to do on their operation. It’s more about helping them discover the answers for themselves. It’s my job to make their jobs easier—to help them be innovative in their business strategy and their daily work.”
In each of her roles, Sara’s learned from mentors who taught her to think in new ways. She’s found that it’s important to ask questions and find the answers on her own. It’s something she tries to remember every day.
“Eric used to drive me crazy because he’d answer all of my questions with a question,” says Sara. “But now I realize how valuable his lesson really was. You have to wake up and ask, ‘What’s the most important thing for me to accomplish today that’s going to help my team, business and customers?’ And then you’ve got to be able to answer that every single day.”