By Whitney Baxter
A native of Virginia and raised on a sixth-generation family farm, Martha Smith enrolled in Iowa State University’s agricultural business major to see how agriculture in each state compared. Since graduating, she has significantly impacted agriculture throughout Iowa and the nation.
Smith (’04 agricultural business, international agriculture), who now resides in St. Louis, Missouri, was presented Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences 2023 Emerging Iowa Leader Award at the annual CALS BBQ on Sept. 2. This honor is given to individuals 40 years of age or younger who live or work in Iowa and demonstrate high potential for future professional growth.
“Martha has launched herself on an impressive and impactful career, helping the agriculture industry and its people and communities forward. She is indeed an outstanding young alumna of our college, with so much more accomplishment coming in the years ahead. We are tremendously pleased to recognize her with this award,” said Daniel J. Robison, holder of the endowed dean’s chair in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Her commitment to the university and enabling the next generation of Cyclones is evident through her involvement in the college’s alumni activities and her service on the ISU Alumni Association Board of Directors. We look forward to watching her continued success and many contributions.”
Currently the head of industry affairs for Bayer Corporation, Smith began her professional career with Monsanto (later acquired by Bayer) as a seed production trainee in Michigan. She then accepted a role as the manager of a small farm owned by Monsanto in Hawaii.
“That was the first time in my life where I was a minority among the population,” Smith said of her time in Hawaii. “I believe everyone should experience that at least once in their life. It gives you a different perspective.”
Other roles she has held with Monsanto/Bayer include sales for Monsanto’s Channel brand of seed, serving as a lobbyist, and then director of government affairs before taking on her current position.
Through her many roles and job locations, she often reflects on how her time as an Iowa State student prepared her to take on each of these responsibilities.
“Coming to Iowa State and seeing the impact and innovation going on and being in a state where agriculture is such a prominent part of the economy really opened my eyes to the world,” Smith said. “The incredible network of people I built at Iowa State has been a game-changer in my career with such a large corporation.”
That network of people, as well as her leadership skills, were built, in part, due to her active involvement in student organizations on campus, including the Ag Business, Block and Bridle and Farm Operations clubs. Ron Deiter, emeritus professor of economics and former advisor of the Ag Business Club, was impressed by the number of leadership roles Smith took on as a student.
“When Martha graduated, she had over 30 projects or committees within those three clubs for which she had played a leadership role. I can't think of another student who had such an extensive leadership record by the time they graduated,” Deiter said.
Jim Kliebenstein, emeritus professor of economics, further acknowledged Smith’s impressive leadership skills and said the success Smith has found professionally comes as no surprise.
“She is a leader who is always organized, focused, dedicated and determined. She was always looking for opportunities to push beyond her comfort zone,” Kliebenstein said.
Smith encourages students and young alumni to challenge themselves early on in their careers. For example, her sales position was a role she had never pictured herself in, but she found it was something she enjoyed. And she had never been to Hawaii before, let alone overseen a farm.
“Be bold and go chase things unfamiliar to you; you can always return to the familiar,” Smith said. “Moving to Hawaii was outright scary, but it built me as a person and gave me a new mindset. That, to me, is when real career success comes.”