Got a question about hemp? Then you need to call Marguerite Bolt. As the first hemp extension specialist at Purdue University, Marguerite has become the point person for Indiana farmers growing commercial hemp, one of the hottest crops to, well, crop up over the last few years. To date, she has answered thousands of hemp-related production questions, held over 50 in-person field days (pre-Covid), and created a host of resources aimed at crop production techniques to propel hemp production forward. With an M.S. in entomology already completed, Marguerite is currently working towards a Ph.D. in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue with a focus on disease management in outdoor-grown hemp. And she plans to continue her hemp career doing extension work once she graduates.
Photo taken by James Hilbert
Land Values sat down with Marguerite to discuss what it’s like being a scientist in the agriculture industry, challenges being the first person in her current role and ways to support women interested in pursuing a similar path.
Land Values: You’re the point person of hemp and the first person in your role at Purdue University. What makes this an exciting field to be in right now?
Marguerite Bolt: Being in a new position, there were no written instructions or guidelines for how I was supposed to run the program. I wasn’t inheriting anything, which, in some ways, is really great because it’s been kind of a choose your-own-adventure for me to figure out how to best suit the industry in Indiana. But it’s definitely challenging to try to figure out as much information as possible as soon as possible and then turn around and communicate that with all of the growers and other people in need of production information so they can have a successful growing season.
LV: But it’s exciting, too.
MB: Definitely! I get to try new things, figure out what the problems are and how to solve them. I switched from working primarily with fruit crops to a crop that’s kind of in between. It was a pretty big shift, working in a system that had so much information (fruit crops) to one where there’s very little or very old information available (hemp).
LV: How has your background prepared you for this role?
MB: My master’s research was in insect interaction and chemical ecology, which is helpful because I’m in the Department of Agronomy at Purdue and there was a lot of information that I could carry over. I’m actually the de facto entomology person in the agronomy department regarding hemp…but I’ve also had to shift my focus to look at some of these basic agronomic production questions and figure out how to communicate those to growers. That’s been different for me because, before, I focused solely on insects.
LV: What’s a typical day like for you?
MB: Prior to Covid, I’d head to various farms or see what other graduate students were working on because growers want to know about the current research happening in hemp. I gave a lot of talks, visited a lot of farms over my first four-month period in the job, traveled all over the Midwest to stay on top of the latest in hemp and meet the growers. During the winter months, I’d work on winter programming, hold meetings with growers to prepare them for the upcoming season or go over the current research. That’s changed since Covid. I had to restrict visiting farms last year, but still kept up constant communication with hemp growers around the state. I created an email newsletter, have held webinars and probably answer hundreds of emails every day.
LV: As a scientist in the agriculture industry, what advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a similar path?
MB: As a woman in both the agriculture industry and academia, I navigate two different worlds the same way and recommend women do the same. Women need to keep their heads high and not take any nonsense from male colleagues, fellow students or anybody, for that matter, because both environments can be really competitive.
Also, don’t be afraid to speak up or voice a concern. It’s important to stand up for yourself, which can be scary, but is still necessary and critical to stop harassment.
Build your support network. I have a really strong network of women both in agriculture and in science who have been a tremendous asset for me – and I am there for them, too. We try to be as open as possible with one another, helping each other through difficult issues or providing support when needed. That support network is invaluable and I have made sure that it continues into my extension space, too. There’s a lot of amazing women in extension positions, in agriculture industry positions, in science positions, and open communication really helps us all continually lift one another up.
There is more than enough room for everyone to find a spot in agricultural science and, even though it can get competitive, we can still build each other up and recognize that the agricultural space that many of us grew up with is changing and becoming more inclusive. It is by no means perfect, but there is progress being made.
LV: Once you complete your Ph.D., do you think you’ll continue in extension?
MB: I would love to work with this crop probably for the rest of my life. I love working in extension, working with farmers and growers within the community. There are so many different types of growers, a lot more women getting into production that maybe wouldn’t have pursued agriculture, a lot more people of color…it’s an exciting space to work in because there is a lot more diversity than our more traditional crop. It’s a really fulfilling position to be in because I get to interact with people on such a massive scale. And I don’t want to give that up. At least not yet.