Lauren was interviewed by Hannah Wilson-Black, a second-year in the College double-majoring in Environmental and Urban Studies and Creative Writing, who transcribed and edited their conversation for clarity.
Lauren has worked in agriculture marketing for the majority of her career, and now works with Indigo Agriculture
Lauren was enrolled in Sabina Shaikh's (Professor and PGE Program Director) agriculture economics course, where she was able to develop and deepen her undergraduate BA thesis. Lauren still remembers the course, "It was fascinating to work with her (Shaikh) — she’s an amazing professor and she brought together an amazing group of students and we all bounced ideas off of each other and strengthened each others’ proposals for this class. And that was super valuable and had a big impact, not only on my thesis project, but on how I think about those kinds of problems today."
Before her current role with Indigo Agriculture, Lauren worked for established agriculture brands like Kent Nutrition Group and Bayer, and for startups like Granular Inc.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Sure thing. So I grew up on my family’s six-generation farm in northeast Iowa and I’ve always known that I wanted to go into agriculture. I feel passionate about how the world talks about agriculture and thinks about agriculture and how that ends up affecting growers today. And so I ended up at the University of Chicago because I was looking at colleges that were a little bit outside the realm of agriculture because I feel like the agriculture industry speaks to the choir a lot, you know. And so I wanted to get out there and learn something outside of the sphere I grew up in. And I took one tour of the college and fell in love. And I applied Early Action and I got in and was super excited. I lived in Snell Hitchock all four years and I majored in sociology and wrote my thesis on how consumers value the marketing of agricultural consumer goods, like when a product says “all natural” or “organic” on it.
What sort of work do you do now with Indigo Agriculture?
99% of my career has been in agricultural marketing. So when I was in college I interned with an in-house marketing team, an agricultural agency, and then for an agriculture startup, and I decided that I really loved the agency life — you get to work with so many accounts and so many people and so many different problems. So my career up until Indigo had been at agricultural agencies — except for one moment where I went to New York and worked at a big ad agency firm on restaurant brands and decided that I cared more about the other end of the food value chain than, you know, selling breadsticks. And so after spending a couple of years on some pretty established agriculture brands — like Kent Nutrition Group and Bayer — and startups like Granular Inc., I saw what Indigo Ag was doing and I thought it was really interesting. I saw an interesting problem being tackled by a bunch of people who were coming from outside agriculture to revamp what agriculture looks like — in the way that it interacts with ecosystems, in the way that it enhances farmer profitability, and in the way that it strives to improve consumer health. So I thought Indigo was looking at three really important angles in a way that I hadn’t seen any other agriculture company do and so I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to work with them. So I came over to Indigo and I’ve worked on all of our brands there. We have four main products, or offerings, that we currently work with. One is Indigo Marketplace, which is a digital commodity trading platform. We have Indigo Transport, which is how we transport grain around the nation — we hook grain carriers and suppliers up. We have Indigo Microbials, which is a biological seed coating that improves plant health, and then we have Indigo Carbon, which is super interesting. Indigo Carbon asks, “How do we pay growers or incentivize growers to sequester carbon to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and improve our health?”
What do you mean by “sequester carbon”?
Right now, farmers are paid for commodities, so even if they use regenerative agricultural practices — reduce tillage or integrate livestock or use cover crops — they don’t get paid more for these practices. In the long run they might get paid more because they might have more robust crops coming off of healthier soils. But currently, profit margins in agriculture are so slim that farmers can’t afford to wait 10 years for crop health to improve — they just need to extract a huge volume of yield from their fields. So to incentivize growers to practice regenerative agriculture we need to be able to track and market grain that is grown regeneratively so that when consumers see this flour sitting on the shelf that says “grown regeneratively,” they think, “This is important to me. I will pay a dollar, two dollars more for this.” And that value can go back to the grower and so they are rewarded for the actions they’ve taken to be regenerative. We want to make sure consumers vote with their dollars and regenerative growers get rewarded.
You actually brought this up a while back and it flows really well into my next question, which is, do you find that your colleagues at Indigo tend to have some personal history with farming or is that rare?
I would say that most agriculture colleagues that I have had at past jobs have come through very traditional agricultural paths, not for any better or worse than me, but they go through Iowa State or Texas A&M with very traditional agricultural programs so they come from agriculture and stay in agriculture. So to try to differentiate myself I’ve tried to take a step outside of agriculture and work at problems with teams that don’t have a lot of agricultural focus in them. So I would say that for the most part my colleagues in my career have not had heavy agricultural backgrounds, especially in the marketing side of the business, because to be an agronomist you have to have a heavy agricultural background, but in marketing, not necessarily. So I enjoy bringing the voice of the grower to programs that affect not only growers but consumers and the environment as well, because I think that’s where we break through the echo chamber.
And because of your farming background paired with your time at UChicago — as opposed to a traditional farming program — you bring something unique to the table?
I think you nailed it, that’s exactly how I bring differentiated value to the businesses that I work at. I have this robust University of Chicago “question everything” experience. Your college education is the lens through which you see the world and I have a pretty unique one in the context of the agriculture industry. So I can bring “It works in practice, but does it work in theory?” to agriculture. I think that is the difference that I can bring to the table.
What is something that you learned at UChicago that you still remember?
I think one fantastic thing that the University of Chicago gave me is the ability to debate from multiple sides of an issue. That skill is really good for me because it helps me break down this echo chamber in agriculture: “We are farmers, they are the other. They’re city slickers, they’re urbanites, they don’t get us, they’re imposing rules upon us.” But I can see the other side of the issue, you know: “urbanites” want to be green. They want to live on a healthy planet. I can’t fault them for that, and we shouldn’t “other” them and ostracize them from the world of agriculture just because they don’t have the same lifelong upbringing in agriculture that we do. How can we expect “city slickers” to understand agriculture at the same level we do? That’s just not going to work. So I love that the University of Chicago and my education there helped me think about a problem from multiple angles to find the most resilient solution, and I use that every day.
Are there any classes that you still think about to this day?
I came in as an economics major, and while I thought that was pretty interesting at the time, I ended up falling in love with sociology and figuring out how groups of people think, which has only benefited my career in marketing. And I definitely loved Professor Shaikh’s agricultural economics class that I took in 2014. It was pretty open-ended. She let us study anything in agriculture that we thought was interesting. And so I was able to use that time to deepen my thesis about how people react to agricultural marketing messages. It was fascinating to work with her — she’s an amazing professor and she brought together an amazing group of students and we all bounced ideas off of each other and strengthened each others’ proposals for this class. And that was super valuable and had a big impact, not only on my thesis project, but on how I think about those kinds of problems today.