Saving the world has always been part of Amy Skoczlas Cole’s masterplan – an idea sparked in second grade when she penned an essay to save the not-quite-endangered koala bear. While that campaign may have been unnecessary, it was just the beginning of a lengthy career with a reach that includes Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and foundations. Within these roles, one thing remains in common: an environmental purpose.
Land Values talked to Amy Skoczlas Cole while she was on the road, traveling in her current position as Executive Vice President at Farm Journal where she leads Trust in Food, a purpose-driven business geared toward propelling the adoption of regenerative agriculture on farmland forward across the nation. Prior to her role there, Amy served as Managing Director for The Water Main, which launched the sustainable agriculture podcast, Field Work, in 2019.
Land Values: Why did you decide to focus your career in agriculture? What made you go into this sector?
Amy Skoczlas Cole: It’s been pretty much a through line for my whole career. The first 13 years of my professional career I was at Conservation International and that was where I did some of the first partnerships between companies and environmentalists. The vast majority of my time was spent on food, fiber, fuel challenges around the world because that’s where we saw tension between economic development and environmental outcomes.
But there’s also a pre-step here, which was that I was sure I was going to law school. I actually even sat down for the LSAT and studied for the LSAT. I did great, but didn’t end up going to law school because it felt, to me, like many of the great environmental battles of the United States had already been done before I came on the scene. However, that experience really piqued my interest in the connection between economic development and environmental sustainability. But you don’t get one step – not even one-half step into that world – without realizing it’s the food, fiber, and fuel economies that are really at the center of that.
LV: And now you’re Executive Vice President for Farm Journal and Trust in Food. Was it a natural transition for you after working on The Water Main and launching Field Work?
ASC: The through-line in my whole career is how do you take the assets of the organization you’re sitting in? After Conservation International, I was the Chief Sustainability Officer at eBay and then at Pentair Foundation. Those kinds of jobs are like, what do we have to offer and how can we put it to work to help solve problems? At American Public Media, we had vast, vast consumer reach.
What I realized with Field Work was that we really needed to have vast trust and reach with a different kind of community that’s been underserved with information, which is the agricultural community. What I really love that I get to do it Farm Journal is take the reach and the trust of a 145-year-old company – the largest megaphone in agriculture. But we also have a tremendous amount of intelligence and data and insights that allows me to meet producers where they are with what they need in ways that they’ll trust. So it wasn’t actually much more than a sidestep from what I was doing with American Public Media to go into Farm Journal. But, frankly, I feel like I’m doing it from a platform that has the inherent trust of producers and, therefore, can have a much bigger impact.
LV: What’s your day-to-day like? What do you do in your current role?
ASC: I am a bridge builder. Everything I’m doing in my current role looks at how do you build bridges between agriculture producers and the realities of their operations and the world of food and the world of sustainability? So, day to day, I can be doing anything from helping create a new program around sustainability and beef, which is one of the big things that we’re working on now. Last week, I was at InfoAg, helping ag retailers understand how producers are thinking about carbon markets because we’ve got a lot of firsthand information as well as survey data on that. And the week before that, I was in Flora, Indiana, at the Oyler family farm with a really large-scale field day that was looking at the connection between farming operations, data and equipment.
It’s a lot of being out there, trying to bring these different constituencies or stakeholders or whatever you want to call them together in different forums. I’m always jumping between the perspectives of the different folks that I work with: one week with the producer, one week with ag retailers, one week with food companies. It’s sort of like circling the wagons.
What it really comes down to – and I believe this with every bone of my body – is that, for too long, the world of sustainability has tried to talk at producers and has sort of cast the farmer as an uneducated yokel. And if you worked even one minute with farmers, you know that’s not the case. You know that farmers are some of the smartest business people around. So, what the sustainability community has really lacked is a perspective really grounded in what agricultural producers’ day to day really looks like.
LV: You’ve had quite a few leadership positions and I’m curious if you’ve faced any challenges along the way that you’ve had to navigate – or should I say navigate differently being a woman in the conservation/agricultural industries?
ASC: I didn’t really have any great role models to emulate. What I needed to do was figure out how to show up as me so that I was authentically myself, but, at the same time, I was also trying to navigate the different cultures – the different work cultures of the places where I was working. And I mentioned that, actually, at the beginning of my career, I was working internationally as a young woman in places like Brazil and Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico. That taught me a lot about how to be attuned to different cultures. And I think I carried that with me. Not just the different nationality cultures, but also how to relate to the subtle subtexts of that culture and to try to figure out how to show up in a culture in a way that people could hear and accept.
LV: Do you have any advice for women interested in following a similar career?
ASC: When I started, like, in the dark ages of sustainability, the category, the sector, didn’t really exist. But what I knew then is something that I know now, only sort of amplified, which is that having a passion and knowledge about sustainability is not really enough. Having hard technical skills is really important. And whether those technical skills come in the form of scientific skills like agronomy or biology or whether they come in the form of business skills like finance or marketing, it’s really important to understand that sustainability is about system change. And that means that having specific technical skills is an absolute prerequisite to being accepted into and effective in intervening in a system that you’re trying to influence. So, find what you’re great at from a from a field of study, from a technical perspective or a sectoral perspective, and then build sustainability around it.