Professor Laura Van Eerd shares her strong roots in agriculture and pragmatic advice to stay solutions-oriented.
By Stefanie Croley
Laura Van Eerd is well known for her cover crop research locally, nationally and internationally. As a professor at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus, Van Eerd teaches and conducts research on sustainable soil management in addition to working directly with farmers. Fruit and Vegetable editor Stephanie Gordon interviewed Van Eerd to discuss her career and what advice she would pass along.
Tell us about your background in agriculture.
I really enjoyed growing up on the farm and I would say that without that exposure to agriculture I don’t think I’d be here. That, and my enjoyment of the outdoors and trying to figure out how things work, in a scientific way, is where I’m coming from.
Interestingly enough, the home farm is 16 kilometers from Ridgetown campus. I went to elementary and high school in Ridgetown, and I even worked as a summer student at Ridgetown Campus. In those dog days of summer when you’re working at counting, and counting, and counting some more, I thought to myself, ‘One of these days I’m going to come back and be everyone’s boss.’ And that’s what I ended up doing. One of the things that I really enjoyed about agriculture was being outside and the unfortunate part is, as a researcher, I get less and less opportunities to do field work but when I do, I really enjoy it.
What’s been one challenge you’ve faced during your career?
The biggest challenge was my first year as a college professor. It was my first time teaching a full course; first time in my position as a college professor having to figure out my research program. We moved to Ridgetown and we didn’t have a house yet. And my first day on campus was the blackout of 2013 where all the electricity in Eastern Canada and parts of the States was out.
It was a pretty challenging time, but I survived. What I learned from it was do your best, keep your head down and work hard. In the end you get through it and you’re on the other side.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
You can do whatever you put your mind to – and that was from my father. There’s other advice throughout my career. When I first started, my PhD advisor said ‘Don’t go to your boss with the problem, go to your boss with the problem and the solution.’ If you go to someone with the problem and solution, it’s more likely that you’re going to get that solution implemented.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career, what advice would you give your younger self?
I would say stop worrying. You got this. Because there’s a lot of worrying – especially at the beginning – and true for lots of people, and probably more women. I did a lot of that, especially when I first started. I think I would have enjoyed my earlier career days if I didn’t have that worry in the back of my mind. I was working really hard to calm down that worry and stress when I first began.
How would you like to see the agriculture industry change?
I would love to see rewards for environmental stewardship. That growers are compensated for the goods and services that their farm does to the environment. I think the public overlooks agriculture and sees it as a contributor to degradation. They do not see a contributor to cleaner water, filtered air, let alone the safest, most nutritious food that we’ve seen ever. My concern is that a lot of the general public are skeptical about science and skepticism prevents us from moving forward.