Holly little

DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT AT ACADIAN PLANT HEALTH

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast, where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey towards those careers. I’m your host Erin Gorter and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

Erin Gorter:

Alright so we’re here with Holly Little, Director of Research and Development with Acadian Plant Health and thanks for joining us Holly. Our first question that we kind of start off with here is describe what you do for living and what a typical day looks like for you. 

 

Holly Little:

Thanks for having me. So what I do is I'm the director of Research and Development for an agricultural chemical fertilizer bio stimulant company depending on sort of the market we're in and what we want to call ourselves. So my job is sort of multi fold. I manage people and those people that I manage are really responsible for the day-to-day research and development. So identifying how the products that we make work to benefit plants and how they can be used in the field and also development of new products for the same thing for bio stimulants for use in agriculture. So I have a team of researchers who work in our R&D center at our headquarters so focusing on bioassay's greenhouse and small plot field trials and then I also have a team of researchers in the field to do more commercial agricultural research. My job is to manage them but also manage or identify strategies and direction for research and development. 

Erin Gorter:

What is a bio stimulant? 

Holly Little:

That's a good question. According to the state of California it doesn't exist and it's a dirty word and you're not supposed to use it. According to Europe, it is a product that's used to enhance stress resistance or nutrient uptake in agricultural crops aside from its nutrient component. So it's something that affects the plant growth and productivity but it's not a straight nutrient. The US is still trying to figure out what the definition of a bio stimulant is. 

Erin Gorter:

Sounds interesting, alright. What was your high school experience like? What activities were you involved in, classes you took? What was 15 year old Holly up to? 

Holly Little:

That was a long time ago so I'll try to remember it. I was involved in a lot of sports; not necessarily because I was really good at them but because it was a small school so you could be involved in a lot of sports and didn't have to be really good. I was always doing a sport of some sort and then I was also heavily involved in FFA. From being an officer and being involved in various judging teams and speeches, parli pro, all that sort of stuff as well as taking a lot of AG classes. We didn't have a lot of opportunities for electives or other classes outside of the standards and AG when I was growing up so it was kind of it was something I was interested in and it gave sort of a lot of those opportunities for development outside of basic classes that weren’t really there in any other ways. 

Erin Gorter:

And what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Holly Little:

I am still not sure I know. You know I wasn't really sure I wanted to be involved in agriculture but I think even though you know you're exposed through FFA to kind of different careers I don't think I really knew what options were. So for a long time I wanted to be a vet and then when I actually went to college I wanted to be a high school AG teacher. I think both of those were never really truly my calling but I didn't realize sort of the whole realm of possibilities of what I could be. You know the career path I'm on is not necessarily what I ever thought I would be on. But as I understood or as I went through my education and sort of learned more, not even necessarily about what was out there but about different things in AG, I knew what I wanted to do really was focused on something where I could help growers and farmers and producers be better at what they do. So that's really where I focused and it led me to where I was.  

Erin Gorter:

I'm not sure who didn't want to be a vet when they were little. 

Holly Little:

Right? 

Erin Gorter:

I wanted to be a vet and I became a high school ag teacher so I fulfilled your… 

Holly Little:

Right, right... and before wanting to be a vet I did want to be an astronaut which I think is every other kid's dream as well at some point. 

Erin Gorter:

For sure, for sure! Okay so you did not become an astronaut but your educational and kind of work experience background prior to this point.  

Holly Little:

Yeah so I did, just as a totally random side note, I did look up recently what it takes to apply or not and I'm not out of the running yet so it's possible that I could still apply. Unlikely, but possible. I think I've got a couple of years left. So, what was the question, educational background? Okay so after high school I went to Chico State, majoring in AG science and education because again I thought I wanted to be a high school AG teacher. And even beyond that what I really liked about that degree was it exposed to a little of everything. So I got to do animal science which is what I thought I really liked, I had to do plant science which at the time I didn't know I really liked and then I was forced to do some of the AG mechanics stuff that just was what you have to do when you're in that. So it gave me a lot of exposure to different things and then as I got closer to graduating, I was like, ‘Wait but I don't actually want to be a high school teacher. So what do I do now? Like you know I don't know what to do.’ So I went to my advisor and he was like, ‘Well go to grad school.’ My dad never went to college; my mom did but no, I didn't even know anyone who had ever gone to grad school. So it wasn't something that I ever considered as something people did. Like yeah, I know people did it but other than professors, I didn't know anyone who did it so it was just sort of something that would have never crossed my mind. And so he told me that and I'm like, ‘Oh what do I study there like I don't even know what I want to do,’ and he's like, ‘Well pick something. Like you get to choose, you pick.’ I'm like, ‘What do you mean? I better pick what I really want to do, because at this point if I'm going to grad school for it, that's kind of the field I want to be in, and I'm like I don't even know if I want to study plants or animals. Just because I had grown up on a farm but with sort of transplanted parents. Not from a farming family outside of my parents. My dad had a job that moved us to Northern California from Los Angeles and my parents were like, ‘Hey we're in Northern California let's buy a farm.’ So it was kind of a weird way that I got into agriculture. But I hated when I was growing up, and even through college, having to come home during harvest season, our pruning season or whatever it might be, and you know that was spring break: working on the farm. I hated that at the time, but as I started thinking about what do I really want to do, what do I want to learn more about, it really was the plant side of things. So I chose to go to UC Davis and get my Masters Degree in Horticulture and Agronomy, and as I was finishing that up, I was like I still don't know what I want to do so I'm going to stick around for a PhD. At that point I did have an idea of what I wanted to do, it was really sort of solidifying that I wanted to do something that would help growers in a very applied way and that's what my research with my Masters and my PhD had focused on. So as I got closer to that, I think this farm advisor thing kind of sounds cool. You get to do research, you get to help growers, you get to work one on one, so that that was kind of a direction I was leaning. As I was for that, although technically there's a requirement of a Masters degree, there were a lot of advantages to having a PhD moving into that role and some other things I was looking at. So that kind of went together of leading in the right direction for where I wanted to be doing sort of applied research. And then as I finished my PhD I had interviewed for a farm advisor position at the same time as I had interviewed for a position with my current company. A different position than I'm in now, but still a position with my current company and I really liked sort of the science that Acadian was putting into these sort of weird bio stimulant products that are thought of a lot of as snake oils, but really did have some legitimate benefits and science behind them and how they worked. So that's really what drew me into industry versus farm advisor academia. 

Erin Gorter:

Yes that's amazing. So you've been with Acadian Plant Health since you finished your PhD program? 

Holly Little:

I have, yeah. So it's been a little over 13 years and I think more and more that's unusual, you don't tend to see in the industry that same sort of loyalty to the company and longevity with the company. Although it is still out there, but it's more and more rare. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yes, okay Dr. Little, I'll refer to you by your title now at this point, Dr little what is your favorite part about your day at work with Acadian Plant Health?  

Holly Little:

I think one of my favorite parts, well I guess there's a couple of favorite parts, one is that every day is a little bit different. I have office days where I'm sitting down writing reports or reading papers or reviewing things, but then under normal circumstances I have days where I'm out in the field, or where I'm working with people in different countries. It's given me an amazing opportunity to go and get out in the field and work with farmers in multiple countries. I've been to India, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Canada, that's roughly it, and in all those places I've been in the field with growers and understood how they grow the crops. What some of their challenges are and what they need to be a better grower. And that's one of the exciting things for me is not just being able to give them information to make them better, but to learn what they're doing and what their challenges are and really understanding that. I was amazed when I was in India where it, aside from a much smaller scale, you could have thought the table grapes being grown there were grown here in California. 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah that's cool to get to learn about agriculture in other countries. And not just learn about it, but actually get to go there and help them find solutions to problems that they’re having. I think that's a super cool part about your job. What’s the hardest part about your work day?  

 

Holly Little:

Time zones. I have a team of people who report to me who are in the US, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Europe, India and China. I think that vaguely goes in order of time zones. I have meetings with all of them and sometimes with all of them at the same time. So I'm up super early and it's super late in China, and thankfully everyone is flexible and we make it work but it's a challenge to find available time where there's overlap. You know someone's just getting out of bed and someone's getting ready for bed. Thankfully everyone has that flexibility. So that's a challenge to sort of put all that together and in combination with that, the different cultures that come with that, even something as simple as differences between the U.S. and Canada. Where you don't necessarily think that they're going to be that different, there are cultural differences there that when you're working with teams made up of people from all different places, you have to sort of work through. Sometimes that's easier than others. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah lots of logistics to think about with that. This is a fun question not a serious one: In the business of you know producing, managing and marketing, and distribution of food, what is your favorite agricultural commodity? 

 

Holly Little:

So I should have thought about an answer to this ahead of time because I don't know that I have one. I'm going to sort of cheat and say almonds because that's what we grew up farming. Specifically, if you want more specific, I'm going to go blue diamond a can a week is all we ask. 

 

Erin Gorter:

There we go, very nice. That's good, show support for your Auburn farmers. So do you, and I don't know this might apply to your company or your field in general, but can you think of any internships or volunteer opportunities that high school students might be able to partake in to learn more about what you do for a living? 

 

Holly Little:

Yeah so in my company, that's a little bit hard. I know we have programs like that at our head office in Canada, more for college students but I know that I could see the potential there for high school students as well. But I don't think anyone here is going to go to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia for an internship program.  

 

Erin Gorter:

It would be fun! 

Holly Little:

It would be quite fun. It's a pretty cool rural place in Nova Scotia. But aside from that, you know I see it a lot, maybe not so directly exactly in my field in the R&D side of it, but from the applied side of it, I see a lot of internships with a lot of the chemical distribution companies. A lot of sort of summer programs there and I think that there are some with sort of a research focus, sort of agronomy teams, and things like that. Versus like just PCA field scout type of things as well.  

Erin Gorter:

So reaching out to some companies in the same line of work as far as like chemicals for farming and kind of working with them and seeing if you can shadow them or visit with them. 

Holly Little:

Yeah and so a lot of the distributors do have applied research programs, evaluating different chemicals, different pesticides, different fertilizers, whatever it might be and they're putting out trials and collecting data and analyzing it sort of visually observing what happens. So I think there's opportunities there. I've sort of always had luck, and this is probably not the best way to do it, but I've had luck where if I can't find what I'm looking for, I've cold called people and been like, ‘Hey here I am. Here's who I am, I'm interested in this, do you have anything?’ And I did an internship once in college, but still the same idea where they were like, ‘Well we just filled the intern position, but yeah we'll figure something out for you.’ And they did and it worked out great. So I think you know calling and expressing interest and just sort of exploring that might not get you something today or tomorrow but maybe next year it will.  

Erin Gorter:

Yeah, for sure, that's interesting they found something for you anyway. I think we sometimes forget that these companies want to hire people and they're looking for people that are qualified and have passion and experience in these things. So they're willing to make stuff work if they find somebody who wants to be there. So thinking about your career and kind of where you are now, what would you go back and tell 15-16 year old Holly? Like the biggest piece of advice. 

Holly Little:

I don't know that I really have that nugget to give. My husband, he'll be like, ‘Oh I wouldn't go into agriculture. With my education I could make more money doing something else’ but I love what I do. So yeah, I could make more money, but I wouldn't be as happy. So I wouldn’t change that.  

Erin Gorter:

Maybe that's the advice! Do what makes you happy. 

Holly Little:

And, you know, you can be comfortable making a decent living in agriculture. You might not be rich, but you can be comfortable. And being happy I think it is more important than are you making every dollar you possibly could with your educational time. So I would say that and then I guess the other thing I would say is it's okay not to know what you want to do; if you don’t have a career path planned out in high school or even college. That's not necessary and it's okay to go through some trial and error and find what you really want to be doing and what your passion is. Because I think that passion and doing something you really enjoy and want to be doing, and feeling like you're contributing too, is more important than having it laid out. Or, you know, not ever changing or making more money or whatever it might be.  

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah you don't need to have all the answers right now, they will come to you. Very good, thank you so much for your time today. Again, this is Dr. Holly Little the Director of Research and Development with Acadian Plant Health so thank you. 

Holly Little:

Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Cal Poly Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com