Each month, USDA shares stories of women in agriculture who are leading the industry and helping other women succeed along the way. This month, we hear from Susan Stein, director of the USDA National Agroforestry Center.
- What should the world know about your story?
After graduating from college, I worked as a research assistant on a national wildlife assessment in Kenya. The siltation of lakes and rivers due to deforestation and agricultural expansion in Kenya’s highlands was affecting water quality, downstream communities, and wildlife. This experience inspired me to study forestry so I could work with farmers planting trees to control soil erosion.
After receiving a master’s degree in forestry from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I eventually returned to Africa to lead a team of Somali extension agents. We worked with refugees and local villagers to establish nurseries and plant trees for soil conservation and fuelwood production.
- How did you get involved in the Forest Service?
I first joined the Forest Service as the agroforester for the International Forestry Program, now known as International Programs, where I provided outreach and technical assistance to US Agency for International Development (USAID) missions worldwide. During my time in this position, I participated in the Executive Potential Program and learned more about the Forest Service and USDA through details and interviews with senior managers. A three-month detail with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) led to a yearlong assignment supporting an interagency ecosystem management initiative. This helped prepare me for my next Forest Service position as a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) coordinator with the Ecosystem Management Coordination staff.
I later worked on the Forest Service State and Private Forestry Cooperative Forestry staff managing the national Forest Stewardship Program. I eventually collaborated with researchers across the agency to develop the Forests on the Edge research and outreach effort that helped inform the planning of large-scale land use efforts by national, regional, and local agencies and organizations.
- Tell us about your work as the National Agroforestry Center director. What are some specific projects you work on?
The mission of the National Agroforestry Center (NAC) is to advance the health, diversity, and productivity of working lands, waters, and communities through agroforestry. We are a partnership between two branches of the Forest Service – Research and Development, and State and Private Forestry – as well as NRCS. Our work advances USDA’s goals of strengthening the stewardship of private lands through technology and research and facilitating rural prosperity and economic development.
I am fortunate to lead a team of creative, talented, and hardworking individuals who are passionate about our mission and have strong ties with many partners. My role is to provide the resources needed to achieve our goals and to help establish or strengthen partnerships with organizations across USDA and beyond. The latter role includes chairing and coordinating efforts by the USDA Interagency Agroforestry Team (IAT) representing eight USDA agencies.
Specific recent NAC projects that I have personally been involved with include planning and hosting a workshop on enhancing rural economies through agroforestry and producing a publication – Guide to USDA Agroforestry Research Funding Opportunities – about USDA programs that support research in agroforestry.
Other current NAC efforts include leading and supporting regional networks to strengthen agroforestry outreach; producing technical publications for natural resource professionals; producing tools to increase the effectiveness of agroforestry systems; and providing training to professionals and landowners. Two of our biggest audiences are conservation districts and natural resource professionals with NRCS.
- What personal challenges have you encountered as a woman in ag? How did you overcome them?
The biggest challenges occurred in the earlier years of my career. I felt that sometimes my opinions, ideas, and career goals were less likely to be supported than those of my male counterparts. I was often told that I did not “look like a forester.” My response was to work hard and stay focused on advancing the mission assigned to me. I figured that that eventually, people would see and value what I had to offer. What mattered most to me was using my skills to make a difference.
- Who are your role models?
My role models have been other professionals – both women and men – who lead, support, and inspire others to work as a team to move their mission forward. They may be more or less senior than I. They include Claire Harper, the program manager of Watershed Partnerships in the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, who has an amazing ability to pull people together, make each one feel valued, and achieve great things. Claire has had an instrumental role in the formation and maintenance of regional partnerships with municipal water providers, energy utilities, and other community stakeholders to restore forest health in critical watersheds on public and private lands.
- What advice do you have for young women interested in agriculture? What’s the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I ever received was in an address to graduate students at Yale University. The gist of it was: if you hit upon an amazing, exciting idea, drop everything and go for it. Now obviously, we can’t all simply drop everything on our plates to pursue one idea, but most of us have some discretionary time that allows us to advance the mission of our agency in ways we find exciting, that utilize our strengths and interests. That excitement and energy can be instrumental in getting others on board to advance shared goals.
- Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Yes – to the extent that you are able, follow your passions. Also know that the first job or two may not be perfect. While it may not be the exact stepping stone to take you along the linear path that you had envisioned, every single job will provide you with skills and experiences that will be useful in future jobs – I promise! My first job out of graduate school was far from tree planting in Africa; it was at a small, coastal planning consulting firm in Connecticut. But there I learned how to write professional reports, how to conduct National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses, and other invaluable skills that have stood me well over the long run. When waitressing during college, I learned a lot about customer service, dealing with stress, and juggling multiple tasks. Few people follow linear career paths; career variety helps us connect dots that others won’t see.
The USDA’s Women in Ag (WIA) network is dedicated to mentoring and fostering professional development for women across USDA. Join the conversation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, following #womeninag on Twitter and by reading more on the USDA blog.