Colorado State University’s new director of agricultural innovation and partnerships, Jordan Kraft Lambert, is no stranger to catalyzing change and spurring innovation.
In fact, the path that led Lambert to CSU began not far from the CSU Spur campus.
“My great, great, great grandma Agnes came to Colorado in the 1800s as a widow from Scotland,” she said. “She bought our family’s first cows and started a farm in Denver – just 12 miles from CSU Spur.”
For Lambert, this new position will mean pushing the boundaries of innovation while also returning to her agricultural roots.
“My family has been able to grow and prosper and help others grow and prosper because of the outreach and extension that CSU has done for more than 150 years,” she said. “I wanted to give back to that system.”
“Jordan’s enthusiasm for agricultural innovation is compelling and infectious, “said James Pritchett, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Coupled with a calibrated vision for the nexus of science, technology and agriculture, Jordan will inspire the next phase of Colorado’s agricultural ecosystem with thoughtful leadership and service.”
In this newly created position, the director will play a key role in fostering a world-class agricultural innovation ecosystem across Colorado, facilitating strategic partnerships and solutions that benefit diverse stakeholders and enable regenerative agricultural practices. This work will include connecting research, education and engagement activities at CSU to the critical challenges and opportunities the industry faces.
The allure of working for a storied institution like CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, combined with the limitless opportunities for innovation on the new CSU Spur campus made for a perfect combination of everything she loves about agriculture, Lambert said.
An early sign of ag and business savvy
When Lambert turned 12, she began helping her mother with the medical records on her parents’ dairy farm in Fort Morgan. Like many dairies, Kraft Family Dairies uses a medical record system called DairyComp to manage the health of its herd.
“Keeping the health records of every cow up to date showed me that farming at its core is managing a biological system for a particular output, and that the best way to do that is with data,” she said.
Those medical records recorded the lineage of the family’s herd, tracing it back to when Lambert’s grandfather learned of a brand-new technological innovation in agriculture during his time at CSU – artificial insemination.
“When my grandfather learned about artificial insemination back in the 1950s, it started a habit in my family of using data to choose the best cows and the best bulls to breed together to improve our herd,” Lambert said. “Today, that habit means that my family can feed hundreds of other families every day.”
As a kid in 4-H, Lambert leaned into the scientific and economic sides of agriculture.
“That’s when I got super nerdy about the business side,” she said. “I had a Catch-A-Calf, so I was looking through the record book and thinking about profit and loss. How much should I feed this animal? How much did I pay for this animal? How much did I get for this animal at the sale?”
This early exposure to ag economics helped Lambert understand how important profitability is for farmers to keep farming.
“When farmers can run good businesses, they can stay in business,” she said. “When they stay in business, the community has access to good food so they can do their jobs well. Agricultural prosperity is economic prosperity for all.”
After growing up in the dairy industry, Lambert wanted to explore other aspects of agriculture and began her career as a plant genetics engineer creating disease-resistant grapes for wine and genetically engineering rice to produce human breast milk proteins for pharmaceuticals. The work was interesting, but something was missing.
“I was really enjoying the science side, but I was missing the business aspect,” she said. “What I loved about the farm growing up was that it was both.”
Lambert received her MBA from the Harvard Business School and landed a job at a management consulting firm focused on the health care industry, but agriculture was always in the back of her mind.
“When I was a health care consultant, I was flying all over the country from one Fortune 50 client to the next, and I just had this feeling that something wasn’t quite right in my life,” she said. “As we were flying over Colorado, I looked down, and I saw the sprinklers of corn, and I knew I was in the wrong spot. I was supposed to be down there. Not on this plane.”
Lambert went on to work at Indigo Ag, an agricultural tech startup. As the senior director of innovation, she created new business models along with testing technologies such as soil moisture probes, drones and satellites. She was also vice president of business development at Valley Agricultural Software, the company that made DairyComp, the same system she’d used to manage the herds on her parents’ dairy farm as a kid.
“But I was looking for opportunities that would allow me to focus on the entire ag landscape, and that’s why I was really excited about this opportunity at CSU,” she said.
Making Colorado the ‘Silicon Valley’ of ag
That’s because while the challenges agriculture faces are monumental, Lambert said so are the opportunities.
Necessity is the mother of invention, she said. Colorado is in desperate need of water and that means this is where water innovations can be found, innovations that are not only applicable to the state but globally as well.
“And I think Colorado – and CSU – are really well-positioned to create those innovations,” she said. “I believe Colorado can be the Silicon Valley of arid agriculture.”
Lambert said that she’s excited to dig in and see what solutions are already being created at CSU and begin mapping out the most pressing problems that Colorado is facing across the field – from traditional ag to hydroponics to the marijuana industry.
“I also really want to understand from the producers themselves what those problems currently are,” she said. “Labor, water scarcity, access to markets that can drive a premium – those will likely be the themes to start with – but I’d like to understand it from their perspective.”
Bridging the divide
Lambert also hopes to find ways to bridge the gap between producers and consumers.
“We have done such a wonderful job of scaling agriculture and making food affordable; the average American spends less than 10% of their disposable income on food,” she said. “But less than 2% of the American population are farmers. So, if you know a hundred people, you might know a farmer.”
That disconnect has serious implications for the industry and society in general, Lambert explained. As a college student, one of her favorite classes was an eye-opening post-harvest course that looked at various food production systems.
Despite a lifetime on a farm, this was the first time she’d seen potatoes being grown, or peaches, or celery.
“I walked through a field of celery that had just been harvested, and it was just celery lying everywhere,” Lambert said. “I had never seen so much celery in all my life. As I was walking on it and it’s crunching under my feet, I realized that there’s a lot I don’t know about the rest of agriculture.”
There’s a broken relationship between food producers and food consumers, Lambert said. Just as the 12 miles between her family’s farm and Spur bridge generations of her family, Lambert hopes CSU and CSU Spur can provide a bridge from food production to public awareness.
“I think eating is about the most sacred thing you can do,” she said. “You’re taking something from the outside world, and you are putting it inside your body. You can’t get a more trusting relationship than that. I see CSU Spur as the birthplace of conversations and innovations that can build that trust.”