College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni and Friends Honored

AMES, Iowa – The Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the Iowa State University Alumni Association presented awards at the annual Honors and Awards Ceremony on Oct. 25.

Steve Berger received the CALS Floyd Andre Award. This award honors alumni and friends who have made outstanding contributions to production agriculture, agricultural business or who had a significant impact on Iowa agriculture.

Berger, a farmer from Wellman, Iowa, received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural business in 1986. Berger’s operation has implemented cutting-edge soil conservation practices like no-till and cover crops for more than 40 years. He is an acknowledged expert and mentor in conservation practices and regularly partners with Iowa State University and state and federal agencies on collaborative research.

His work in soil conservation has been recognized with environmental stewardship honors from the American Soybean Association, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In 2018, he was honored as an Iowa Master Farmer by Wallace’s Farmer.

Berger serves as a commissioner on the State of Iowa Judicial Nominations Committee and is heavily involved at the state and local levels with Rotary, Practical Farmers of Iowa and agricultural commodity organizations.

Diane Birt received the CALS George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award. The award honors college alumni and friends who have demonstrated outstanding achievement or leadership in making significant, influential or innovative contributions to society.

Birt, of Ames, Iowa, is a Distinguished Professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University and a nationally recognized scientist whose work expanded the understanding of links between diet and cancer prevention. She has been influential in laying a scientific foundation on health benefits and adverse effects of plant-based dietary supplements.

Birt is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, one of the nation’s highest professional honors for outstanding achievement and service in health and medicine. She also is a Fellow of the American Society of Nutrition and serves as a scientific advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board.

She joined Iowa State in 1997 as chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and served in that capacity until 2004. From 2002 to 2011 she was director of the federally funded Iowa Center for Research on Dietary Botanical Supplements – a joint research effort between Iowa State and University of Iowa.

Dhamu Thamodaran was honored with the CALS Henry A. Wallace Award. The award honors college alumni or friends who have achieved notable professional achievements nationally or internationally and brought distinction to themselves, the college and the university through significant contributions. 

Thamodaran, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, earned a doctorate degree in agricultural economics in 1983 and serves as the executive vice president, chief strategy officer and chief commodity hedging officer for Smithfield Foods, Inc., the world’s largest pork producer and processor.

Thamodaran leads strategy development for Smithfield Foods’ vertically integrated business, manages its commodity hedging activities and oversees its global economics commodities research and analysis group.

He is widely respected for his knowledge of global macroeconomics, agricultural markets and the pork value chain. He is regularly invited to speak to the boards of food and agriculture companies and at industry trade association events. In 2019, Thamodaran joined the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group’s Agricultural Markets Advisory Council. An avid advocate for education, Thamodaran shares his professional experiences and insights with students across the nation.

Kelly Norris  and Michael Taylor each received a CALS Outstanding Young Professional Award. The award honors mid-career CALS alumni or friends who have distinguished themselves through significant advancement and achievement in their discipline, field or area of expertise.

Norris, of Des Moines, Iowa, serves as the director of horticulture and education at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Norris leads a team in the management of design, curation and programming for the botanical garden.

Norris is a nationally acclaimed horticulturalist and award-winning author. His work has been featured in popular publications like The New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Organic Gardening and Garden Design.

He’s the author of two books, “A Guide to Bearded Iris: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts,” which won the 2013 American Horticultural Society Book Award and earned him recognition with the Iowa Author Award for Special Interest Writing; and “Plants with Style,” published in 2015. In 2019, Norris joined Cottage Farms Direct on the QVC home shopping network as a guest host. Norris serves on the Iowa State University Horticulture Department’s external advisory committee and is a regular guest lecturer in campus classrooms.

Taylor, of Adel, Iowa, is the co-founder and partner of Midwest Growth Partners, a private equity firm that manages $154 million in committed capital. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural studies in 2003.

Following graduation from Iowa State University, Taylor managed the acquisition of a retail pharmacy. This move provided a springboard for his career in mergers and acquisitions and led to the development of Top Tier Holdings, LLC, which he co-founded in 2006. He co-founded Midwest Growth Partners in 2013.

Taylor has served on the board of directors for several companies including GRX Holdings, LLC; Bolts and Nuts Corporation; Inland Coatings Holdings, LLC; Van Becelaere Machine Works; and Jackrabbit, Incorporated. Originally from Creston, Iowa, he remains involved in his family’s farm operation.

Taylor is a member of the Iowa State University Order of the Knoll, board member and finance committee chair of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Iowa and Leadership Iowa Board of Governors program co-chair.

Ben Zelle, of Prairie Village, Kansas, received the Iowa State Alumni Association’s James A. Hopson Volunteer Service Award. The award recognizes Iowa State University alumni, age 40 and under, who demonstrate early volunteer leadership in the Alumni Association or alumni-related activities and who are members of the Iowa State University Alumni Association.

Zelle, territory customer support manager for John Deere and Company, graduated from Iowa State University in 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in agricultural business and management information systems.

Zelle served on the Iowa State University Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Council (YAC), and was elected by his peers to serve as chair of the YAC in 2017. In this role, he also served as an associate to the alumni association’s Board of Directors and represented young alumni on multiple Iowa State University Alumni Association board committees.

Zelle has been an active member of the CALS young alumni program, the Curtiss League, since 2014. He has played a key role in supporting the recruitment of students to Iowa State University and assisting the college with marketing efforts.

Zelle continues his lifelong service to FFA through mentoring, as an Iowa FFA Foundation sponsorship committee member, and as a founding member of the John Deere FFA Alumni and Supporters.

The Agricultural Business Club at Iowa State Universityreceived the Iowa State University Alumni Association Impact Award. The award recognizes individuals, businesses, organizations or units whose programs or accomplishments brought broad recognition to the university.

More than half of Iowa State University’s agricultural business majors participate in the Agricultural Business Club annually, making it one of the largest and most active student organizations on campus. The club was established in 1954 and endowed by Farm Credit Services of America in 2015. Over the years, the club has been involved in extensive philanthropy and volunteer projects, connected hundreds of students with industry leaders and annually honored an outstanding alumnus. In 1976, the club was responsible for creating Iowa State University’s now-renowned College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Career Day, the nation’s largest career fair of its kind.

The organization offers a variety of opportunities for students to extend and apply their knowledge through industry speakers, tours and other networking events. The organization has prepared countless students for future careers on both the production and business sides of the agriculture industry, contributing to a 99 percent job placement rating for Iowa State University students majoring in agricultural business. For 15 of the last 20 years, the club has won the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association’s national outstanding club award or its national creative club award – or both.