Women in Agribusiness: Laura Gentry

As we have seen through many of our features on Modern Prairie Woman, the world of women in ag is wonderfully diverse. We have met ranchers, urban farmers, flower farmers, chicken keepers, and many more, and today we take a look at another realm ofwomen in the ag industry: Women in Agribusiness. Each week we will be featuring a woman in corporate ag, from on the farm and off, who are dedicating their careers to the future of agriculture. 

This week we meet Laura Gentry, Director of Water Quality Research for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and the Illinois Corn Growers Association. Laura has also served as Research Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a focus on sustainable corn production practices. 

Laura grew up in North Carolina, where her family grew potatoes and Christmas trees on a relatively small acreage of farmland in the North Carolina mountains. She went on to study Botany at North Carolina State University.

"I dreamed of owning my own vineyard," she said. "After experimenting with growing grapes on my own, I quickly learned that it required a big financial investment - which I didn't have - and would take a long time to see a profit." 

So, with limited time and resources (but also a degree path in Botany and a love for vineyards), Laura began working at the vineyard at the Biltmore estates in Asheville, NC picking grapes and working in the winery. While working at the Biltmore Estates, Laura happened upon two soil scientists, Drs. Jim Rideout and Greg Hoyt, working at a remote N.C. State-based research station in the mountains of North Carolina who were looking for a graduate student. In the right place at the right time, she accepted an offer for an M.S. assistantship and thus started her eventual involvement in soil science, a degree program that she didn't even know existed, but which she came to really love. 

Laura went on to obtain a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Soil Science, with a focus on the effects of in-field practices such as reduced tillage, nutrient management, fertilizer effectiveness, and cover crops. She later accepted a position to teach and do related research at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND and then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Now, Laura heads up a new water quality research effort and also the new Precision Conservation Management program at Illinois Corn. Her goal is to address the financial, labor, time, and management risks that farmers face when they consider new conservation practices, thus giving farmers the knowledge - and confidence - that they need to try a new practice on their farms. 

“There is a 2025 interim goal in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy to reduce nitrate losses by 15% and phosphorus losses by 25%. That's just NINE growing seasons away,” she reminded me empathetically. 

Practices farmers can employ to address the needed nutrient losses include cover crops, 4Rs nutrient practices, buffer strips, reduced tillage, and land use change. Her team will also offer a financial analysis of various conservation practice scenarios. 

IL Corn partners with companies like Agrible™, whose Advanced Nutrient Engine tool gives nitrogen and phosphorus availability forecasts to help with nutrient management, to boost these efforts towards sustainability.

From the foothills of the Appalachians to the prairie of central Illinois, Laura is a prime example of how any woman, no matter where they came from, can become involved in agriculture and make a difference.