Some people who work in agriculture grow up on farms. They help with harvest and ride in tractor cabs before learning to ride a bike. But others take a different path into the industry.
One research chemist at Koch Agronomic Services (KAS) came into agriculture without even knowing it was the path she was on.
For as long as she can remember, Stacey Wertz has had a passion for science. As a child, she liked learning new things and figuring out how they worked. That was perfect since her father was a chemistry professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I loved science from the time I was a little kid, and I was always encouraged to like it,” Wertz says. “Growing up, I went to the lab with my dad. It didn’t even really occur to me until I was quite a bit older, but my childhood was really different from the way a lot of other people grew up.”
Wertz began college as an engineering major, but soon realized she wanted to become a scientist. So, she changed majors to biophysical chemistry, giving herself the opportunity to study biology and chemistry.
Agriculture and Science
After earning a doctorate in biophysical chemistry, she went to work for Georgia-Pacific (GP) where her path into agriculture began. As a research group leader, she was utilizing her many years of education to improve slow-release fertilizers for the company.
“More and more, I got into trying to understand agriculture,” she says. “What’s really exciting for me is on the molecular level. The soil, really everything that’s happening in the soil.”
After taking time off to have her third child, Wertz rejoined the team she’d worked with at GP who had now shifted to roles with KAS, after Koch Industries acquired GP in 2005. In 2015, Wertz’s primary role shifted to looking at nitrification inhibitors from a scientific perspective. As any good scientist would do, she began by asking questions. How do these products work? What are they doing well? How could they be better? What do the growers need them to do?
Her assignment was to be the lead chemist on a team developing CENTURO® nitrogen stabilizer for commercialization. She knew there was a long path ahead: years of research trials, regulatory approval and conversations with customers, sales and product teams.
“As a scientist, the most rewarding thing I’ve done is probably bringing CENTURO to the commercial market,” Wertz says. “Our team took it from zero. We studied the issues, developed and tested the product in order to make things better for agriculture. I loved the challenge. It led us to be creative and come up with better ideas.”
She believes CENTURO is on trend with what’s needed in agriculture now and in the future.
“We took a category of nitrogen stabilizers that did not offer many alternatives for growers or the available technologies had some handling drawbacks and created one with attributes that made it easy to use and was a more blend-friendly product,” Wertz says. “I think people were looking for this and they're going to be looking for similar approaches in other areas of crop protection chemicals and additives to the ag industry. I think this will be a big trend in the next few years, moving to easier to use and handle products.”
Working at KAS
Wertz loves her work at KAS. She says it isn’t typical, but then again — neither is she.
“I recognize I’m not the typical coworker for most of the people who work in agriculture,” she says. “I feel very privileged to do this work. Koch has built a culture of respect that I appreciate. Instead of trying to force me into a preconceived mold, they’ve allowed me to be the geeky scientist that I am.”
And although agriculture has historically not had as many women working in the industry, Wertz says it’s a great place for women, especially the science side of the industry.
The way the industry is changing, it's perfect for women to get in now and have a full career in agriculture.”
Keeping Her Family Thinking
When she’s not working, she’s spending time with her family. They love to travel, including visits to 49 states, with just Alaska left to see. Exercising together is also a passion, including running half marathons. But she’s also talking to her kids about science and stoking their own curiosity.
Always curious, Wertz enjoys learning even when she’s on vacation. “I'm curious about everything. When I go on a trip, I want to know what the locals like to eat, where they like to go and if there’s a famous person in history who has lived there – I want to see where their house was.”
She recalls coming home one day and explaining her work to her kids probably in a different way from other parent-child conversations. She remembers telling them: “The soil is alive. It’s full of little microorganisms, and every single thing happening in the soil is a chain reaction that can change the way a plant grows.”
Wertz wants her children to be creative, ask questions and develop a passion for life like she did. Who knows, maybe the next big scientific discovery in agriculture will come from a conversation at their house.