Transforming Agriculture, Perennially


Emma Flemmig

Research Technician, Perennial Oilseeds

Emma was born and raised in Glidden, Iowa and now lives in Mentor, Kansas. She has a double B.S. in Agronomy, International Agriculture, and Biology from Iowa State University and an M.S. in Crop Science from North Carolina State University. She is currently finishing a Ph.D. dissertation in Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, where she finished graduate certificates in Multidisciplinary Research for International Development and Nonprofit & NGO Management and worked in South Sudan, Haiti, and India. Emma says she always struggled to limit herself to the confines of studying one subject or one place, but cropping systems and sustainability have always remained the heart of her work, even as she moved further from plant breeding into socioeconomic and food security research and project administration.


What work experiences on your resume are most relevant to your position at TLI? How so?
I was a summer fieldhand at TLI in 2007 and 2009. I earned the dubious distinction as “the only one that ever came back for more,” during an era where the Land Institute was recalibrating their internship programs.  Those two summers I spent almost exclusively toiling behind a hoe in the breeding plots helped me gain empathy and insight into how agriculture became what it is today—both in the industrial world and the Global South.  It also gave me insight into the value of scientific support staff, so I pursued graduate education in plant breeding with the long-term goal of working in fundraising and administration on behalf of agricultural scientists.

As a master’s student at NC State, I used molecular marker to pyramid rust resistance genes into winter wheat germplasm for use by breeders all over the U.S.  Pyramiding is the act of traditional crossing many genes into the same variety for more durable, or long-lasting, resistance to a specific disease or insect pest, and the markers speed up the process and reduce the costs of detecting the genes’ presence together. Another rust species in the same genus is one of the most serious pathogens of Silphium species, and I hope to be able to do similar work here.

Lastly, my work at Virginia Tech involved doing detailed observational research on the linkages between dietary diversity and farming practices in central Haiti and northern India through survey work with thousands of farmers. We are hoping to put these survey skills to use with the Civic Science program and our collaborators, both in the U.S. and with the expansion of TLI’s international programs.

What’s most inspiring about your specific position at TLI?
Silphium species need pollinators, so I find the bee habitat they provide to be as inspiring as their root structures.  There is a tangible excitement when the fields are literally buzzing with bees for me.  It’s much harder to deny the interconnectivity of all above and below ground environmental issues when you feel the ecosystem health indicators under your feet and around your ears.

What would people never guess that you do as part of your role at TLI?
One of the projects I’m leading is to establish a Silphium gene bank in Patagonia due to the favorable environmental conditions there.

What drew you to work at TLI?
The more parts of the world I lived in, the more I felt compelled to “clean up my own backyard.” It is impossible to work in international agriculture and not see how the U.S. agricultural industry strongly influences significant problems overseas. Iowa is to corn production globally, what Kansas arguably is to wheat production—a symbolic beating heart of the industrial agricultural system.  I have deep roots in the Midwest, in this system; I like to think that I was drawn back here because all my attempts to “transplant” failed.

What has been your proudest moment at TLI?
The second summer I worked at TLI and once I had decided that I would pursue graduate studies in plant breeding, Stan, David, and Lee repeatedly refused to believe my promise that I would be back someday. They believed that I would not be able to pull myself out of my “glamorous” life of extensive traveling in international agriculture to return to central Kansas. So after more than 10 years of doing international work, the only thing more fun than telling them they were wrong – is being back with them and participating in the continued growth of the Land Institute.

What else are you passionate about (outside of work)?!
All fiber arts & crafts – knitting, embroidery, quilting, etc. – my next big project is going to be learning to weave and macramé for the creation of large soil profile hangings…obviously profiles with deep roots!

What’s your motto / favorite quote?
Wòch nan dlo pa konnen doulè wòch nan soley.

The rocks in the water don’t know the suffering of the rocks in the sun. — Haitian proverb

Haitian Creole is full of amazing expressions and proverbs, but this one always reminds me to judge less in a world full of unknown dimensions shaping people’s decisions.

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