Let’s take a walk down memory lane. You’re in grade school and it’s the first day of summer break. Months of green grass, sunshine and free time lay ahead of you. Unless you’re the young Vicki Traub. In her case, it was months of garbage collection.
“My mom and dad had a garbage business—Sioux Land Disposal—so my sister and I were always helping them,” Vicki says. “While most kids we knew were out playing on their summer vacations and winter breaks, we were hauling garbage in the sun and the snow.
That’s how I grew up. You got out of bed, you worked, you worked hard. That work ethic has really carried through to me today.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but the job also set the stage for Vicki’s career as a female leader in a predominately male field. Today, she’s the manager of the WinField® United alfalfa plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a role she’s had for nearly 20 years. The path was one filled with defining moments, some good, some bad, but she’s thankful it brought her here.
A bump in the road
Vicki hadn’t planned on going to college. You might say a little peer pressure got her there. A few of her friends decided to enroll at a local business college to become flight attendants. She signed up as well, because why not?
“I thought it sounded fun,” she says. “I enrolled in the program and things were going well. But back then, 30 years ago, you had to fit the part. I didn’t know this when I started, but your height and weight had to ‘match.’ Mine didn’t.”
The door shut. Vicki was out of the program. And her friends went on to fly without her.
Looking back, Vicki says this was a defining moment—the first career obstacle she would have to overcome. And the bump that got her started down an entirely different road. At first she took waitressing gigs, she worked at a clothing store, later in the office at an electronics store. She knew she wanted some type of leadership role, but didn’t know what it would be. Then one day, she saw an ad in the local newspaper for a job opening at a small seed company. This was the description: Secretary wanted. Must like math.
“I liked math and it was close to my house, so I applied,” she says. “In April, that will have been 27 years ago. It was meant to be.”
Finding a career at Land O’Lakes
Vicki started as strictly a secretary. Her main job was to call cooperatives, let them know a truck was coming and ask if they needed anything else.
“I knew zero about alfalfa before I started. I’m a total city girl,” she says. “But I was raised to not worry about getting my hands dirty.”
That’s just what she did. She learned about agriculture, she learned how the plant operated, she learned about commodities and markets, and as those changed over the years, so did the leadership of the company.
“We had a challenging plant manager at the time,” she says. “One day, I finally walked in and said, ‘I could do this job better. You should make me the manager.’ And they did, but it came with a caveat that I’d have the role until they found someone more qualified.”
At the time, Land O’Lakes was one of the plant’s largest customers, buying mostly alfalfa and grass seed. Then in 1996, Land O’Lakes acquired the plant with a caveat of its own—Vicki had to stay on board as manager.
“That was a very proud moment for me,” she says. “Land O’Lakes knew me and knew how I worked. I’d proven myself as being capable of doing the job.”
Alfalfa crash course
Vicki’s team is a small one, at a small facility, servicing half the country for WinField® United’s third largest crop. In fact, the Sioux Falls facility is only one of two alfalfa plants owned by Land O’Lakes.
How it works is a customer, usually a co-op, calls WinField® United and orders alfalfa or sorgum. [If you’re curious, here’s a great overview of alfalfa and what it’s used for.] Vicki and her team handle orders and distribution. The goal is to quickly fulfill all orders and have seed where it needs to be within a day, maybe two.
Today, they ship to all states east of the Rocky Mountains—41 states if you’re counting. At 28,000 square feet, the plant is by no means large. But as the business has grown, they’ve learned to adjust and ship differently. They are continually turning inventory. On a busy day, the team of seven in the warehouse can turn 13 trucks from their single dock. That’s more than a semi an hour, either loaded or unloaded.
January is the start of the busy season, but preparations start in September. All the bags of seed that were not planted that spring get returned to Sioux Falls. The goal is to plant as much seed as possible, so you get the least amount of seed back and don’t have to ship twice. However, it’s good to get enough seed back so that you have a base to kick off the season. Vicki says it’s a balancing act to hit the magic number.
When the hopefully just right number of bags come back in the fall, as required by law, the team pulls samples from every lot of seed and sends them in to be germinated. From there, they determine the process for reconditioning. This means every bag will be handled starting in November.
“We typically recondition about 80,000 bags of seed,” says Vicki. “There are two processes that could be done. We either put a new tag on bags, which are then re-palletized with an updated date. Or if the inoculant on the seed has expired, those bags are cut open, we apply a new inoculant, re-bag and finally re-palletize the seed.”
When the season kicks off, orders come in and the shipping starts.
The daily routine
“I’m here every morning before 7 a.m. to get things rolling,” says Vicki. “I catch up on emails that I’ve gotten throughout the night, and by 8 a.m. we officially start our day by getting orders ready.”
Every day at 9 a.m., unless trucks are backed up to the dock, everyone at the plant stops what they are doing and the team has an all-employee meeting. They call it their “wall street” meeting, since they stand by a wall covered in photos from team events and other fun mementos.
“It’s a chance for everyone to have input on what they are going to be doing that day,” Vicki says. “It might last two or 20 minutes.”
From there, the team is off and running until close at 4:30 p.m. Vicki is proud of the fact that everyone says good morning when they come in and good bye as they head out.
“This is a team,” she says. “The employees I have are awesome. Without them I would be nothing. We do like to have fun, and I try to manage the way I would want to be treated. I let them do their thing, but set realistic goals. I want them to have that job well done feeling.”
Coming full circle
If you ask her, Vicki says two things are especially important to her as a manager 1) making sure everyone is safe and 2) helping everyone feel included.
“To me, everyone has a story, whether they are homeless or living in a mansion,” she says. “When I started to add diversity and inclusion activities to our monthly team meeting, right along with our safety activities, I saw how important it was—it was another defining moment. My team is diverse. We have ages ranging from 26 to 63, that’s two or three generations all working together.”
Vicki says inclusion has become a part of the team’s culture. Man or woman. Different ages, different backgrounds. Everybody is included. It’s a different outlook from the bump that got Vicki here.
“So far, it’s been an amazing journey to be on. I’m looking forward to more.”