WIA Speaker Spotlight: Lucy MacMillan Stitzer
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, WIA Media (March 2019)
What do people eat? How do we help consumers make educated decisions about what they put in their grocery cart? Where is the food grown? What is the most efficient and effective way to grow and transport food while feeding a growing population using existing land? How do we connect the farmer to the consumer? Every morning, these are the questions that the Dirt to Dinner team think about when they wake up.
Lucy MacMillan Stitzer, a member of the Cargill-MacMillan family, former Cargill board member, and founder of the Dirt to Dinner blog, has extensive experience in agriculture, banking, investments, and corporate governance. She began her career in banking, working at Citibank, Sandler O'Neill, and AmeriBank, respectively. She also served on Cargill Inc.’s Board of Directors for 18 years, contributing to the company’s future strategy and supporting efforts to advance the company's diversity and opportunities for women. Since 2011, Stitzer has been chairman of Waycrosse, Inc., the family office of the Cargill and MacMillan families, where her primary focus is to ensure a successful future for both Cargill and the family. Throughout her career she also has benefited from direct equity investments. Today, she lives in the New York metropolitan area and serves on the board of Hamlin Capital Management, as chair/owner of Rush Creek Golf Course, and as the founder of Dirt to Dinner.
Stitzer founded Dirt to Dinner in 2016. Frustrated by the disconnect between hard-working farmers, agriculture, and the dichotomy of what was being marketed in the grocery store, she created the consumer-based food blog. Under her direction, the site has emerged as a strong voice for the modern agricultural system and a primary resource for curious consumers. Dirt to Dinner connects both ends of that food chain – with a principal commitment to help consumers learn more about where their food comes from, as well as highlight the farmers who provide it.
The online publication focuses on global food, sustainable agriculture, and nutrition. The publication has a broad range of subject matter – from food trade and public policy, to genetic engineering and animal antibiotics, and everything in between. Perhaps the most distinctive accomplishment in our era of partisanship and hyperbole, is that Stitzer has made Dirt to Dinner a voice of solid, objective research, and sound, science-based reason, all to advance intelligent and informed consumer decision-making with regard to our global food system.
We got the chance to speak with Stitzer about her various roles in the sector.
ON DIRT TO DINNER
1. How did your experiences influence your desire to educate consumers about food through your blog, Dirt to Dinner? What goals have you set for this media platform?
I am the mother of three children, two of whom were born with a blood disorder, inherited from my side of the family. When I asked the pediatrician the best way to keep them healthy, he said “just feed them well”. I took this to mean eat organic. So I started my own vegetable garden, made homemade baby food, and felt that I was providing my children with the healthiest foods. But as I spoke to more people from large-scale agriculture, it became clear to me that there was a huge disconnect with my approach. Sometimes organic is better and sometimes conventional farming practices are better. Sometimes integrated pest management is best. In the big basket of agricultural chemicals, some are allocated to conventional farming and some are allocated to organic. The best food all depends on the farmer’s technique and individual practices. I came to the realization that in order to feed a growing population on the same amount of land, it was a combination of different farming practices that would prove the most effective and healthy for all.
Did you know that all meat is free from antibiotics? It is against the law to process any dairy or meat where the animal has antibiotic residue. Are cage-free hens really happier? Not necessarily. Are women maturing earlier because of the hormones in milk? No, they are not. From what I see as marketing tactics in the grocery store, and what we know about food – there is a disconnect.
At Dirt to Dinner, we are always searching for the facts behind our food. Lisa Hurst, Hillary Kaufman, Caroline Breed, Hayley Philip, Garland West, and I spend hours researching, discussing, and debating different topics.
Our goal is to educate the consumer on how food is farmed and processed, and also to educate the farmer on consumer trends and purchases. If you read Dirt to Dinner you will learn whether certain foods or diets are healthy, what sustainable agriculture means, and how food makes its way around the world to come to your grocery store.
Many times, food purchases are aspirational. Consumers want full transparency to know where their food originates. But at the same time, they have an idealized emotional view of where it should come from and the two don't always meet. You might have a farmer who grows both conventional and organic strawberries yet won’t feed his or her family GMOs because they really don’t understand what it’s all about.
Every farmer and processor has their niche and everyone looks at their ag world from their own perspective. At Dirt to Dinner, our goal is to broaden that view so that everyone understands the whole picture and can make an educated decision to ensure that we don’t have regulatory policies that prevent food from being grown and eaten in the most sustainable way.
ON WOMEN IN AG
2. In 1992, you and your cousin were the first women to serve on the Cargill board. Did this bring about any new practices? Has the board continued to include women representatives?
Yes, it’s very interesting. For 127 years, the Cargill Board consisted of about nine members which included both family and management representatives. Almost every day, they met for coffee and discussed the business. In 1992, we expanded the board to include our generation along with five independent directors. My cousin and I were the first of our generation, and the first women. I had come from a banking environment where we were obviously very numbers oriented– cash flow, balance sheets, income statements – and I had spent a lot of time comparing the bank financials of their peers. Additionally, my cousin had her own business so she was also very in tune with financials as well. We worked with the CFO at the time to establish a greater focus and more transparency on the financial health of the company.
I am not sure that this transition had much to do with being female; it had more to do with perseverance. However, we continue to have strong, independent females on the board – both from the family as well as independent directors.
3. How was diversity within the company addressed by the board?
I can't speak for the board today, however, I can confirm that Cargill is conscious of inclusion and diversity. We have to be and we want to be. We have 150,000 employees located in 70 countries around the world. We have come a long way since the traditional days of our grandfathers. Cargill represents diversity across the spectrum and we are inclusive of all religions, races, genders, and cultures.
During my time on the board, I was always an advocate for women and diversity. I also was supportive of different work-life options. Many employees take care of their children, as well as their aging parents. We looked to provide new work-life options so that employees could work part-time or do job sharing to ensure that, even if they were busy caring for their family, they could still have a fulfilling role and job at Cargill.
One area where we are not diverse is our values. Cargill is a very principle-based company. For 153 years, Cargill has operated under a consistent set of guiding principles. The family is very proud of that, and so is the company.
4. Our audience for WIA is 30 percent C-suite so many are on boards as well, but many aspire to this goal. Do you have any advice on being a board member?
Good relationships are critical for collaboration. Relationships are built on trust – I would say always be yourself. If you are authentic and true to yourself then you’ll come through as that and people will trust you. Don’t try to be like someone else – your co-worker or boss, or who you think people want to see. If you come across as someone else or have another agenda, others will always see right through that. Best to just be yourself and come forward representing the unique qualities that you bring to the table.
Ask questions and speak up. You can bet that any question you are thinking of asking, someone else is wondering the same thing but is afraid to ask. There’s never a dumb question. While that may seem cliché, it’s true. No one wants to be the one voice in the room that needs clarification on a subject or speaks on a controversial point – but it you don’t ask the question, you will not get the answer.
Personally, I never think of myself as a woman coming to the table. I am an expert in the field coming forward with relevant knowledge I can share with others. Don’t be afraid to have a voice and be who you are.
ON HER CARGILL EXPERIENCE
5. Over 20 years ago, you were instrumental in developing the first strategies to outline the future for Cargill. Now that you can look back on them, how have they positioned the business for success?
Our strategy has been to restructure and get closer to the consumer and the farmer and bring more added value to our end customers and ultimately the consumer. We’ve continued to focus on this over the last 20 years. It’s been a slow process, but a great one.
The most exciting part of this launched in 2010. For years we had a competitive edge because we sold a high volume of commodities. Over a period of time though, a commodity is a commodity and we did not necessarily differentiate ourselves from our competitors. We realized in 1996 that this wasn’t a long-term strategy and we needed to rethink our path.
We turned our focus to building stronger relationships with our customers. We moved from simply selling a commodity, to devising solutions. Being more relationship-oriented served the company very well delivering more success, and setting the framework for today.
6. During your time with Cargill and in the agribusiness sector, what have you seen as the foundation of success?
The biggest key to success is the ability to be adaptable, flexible, and open to change – whether this be as a company, senior manager, or board member. To always be prepared and solid with great earnings, great employees and culture – but always ready to accept change.
Finally, culture is the most important lasting feature. The top companies become top firms by having a distinct, powerful, and compelling culture – a set of values, beliefs, principles, and standards – not of just professional, but also personal conduct. The culture tells you how things really get done, and how decisions are made when treading on uncertain or new territory. Cargill’s culture allows us to do that extremely well.
Lucy MacMillan Stitzer will be a keynote speaker at the 2019 Women in Agribusiness Summit, which will be held in Minneapolis, September 25-27. Learn more at www.womeninag.com.