CROOKSTON, Minn. - Finding your niche. This has been the story of Amanda Crook’s life from Brandon, Manitoba to her current role in agronomic research for The Little Potato Company. It’s one that aligns perfectly with the University of Minnesota Crookston, a place where she was able to cultivate a passion for agronomy and agricultural business and steer her career trajectory. For Crook every part of her journey has been important. To put it simply, it hasn’t been small potatoes.
For Amanda, she didn’t grow up in a farm family. The farm life wasn’t far from her as Brandon, Manitoba was a rural community, however it wasn’t what she knew firsthand. She developed a passion for it. Unsure of what she wanted to do out of high school, Crook began working jobs eventually finding her way to an ag retail company in her hometown.
“The summer before I committed to going to Assiniboine Community College, I wanted to find a summer job and see what this ag industry is about,” Crook stated. “My resume had nothing related to agriculture. It wouldn’t lend anyone to believe I would be good at driving a forklift or a Bobcat. Because someone gave me an opportunity, I ended up working for an ag retail company that sold fertilizer, and did agronomy services and scouting. There was a gentleman there who was a sales agronomist named Blaine Sangster who took me under his wing and he had a lot of the potato accounts. The region between Brandon and Winnipeg has a lot of potato production. It is really sandy. It is where the Lake Agassiz beach was and a lot of sand was deposited when the glacier retreated. There was a lot of potato production in the region. Blaine was the one who looked after many growers. He invited me to hop in the truck and go check out a field and he took the time out of his day to show me things. He became an early career mentor for me.”
Crook’s job at the ag retail store and her connection to Sangster eventually led her to a job working on a potato farm. The experience fueled her interest in potatoes and helped move her passion for the business forward.
“After the job with the ag retail company, my next job in the industry was on a potato farm for two summers,” Crook said. “I did scouting and drove a truck at harvest. Meeting people and getting to attend conferences, it is definitely a small industry. You can go to a conference here (in Canada) or the U.S. and you are seeing the same people. It is the same cluster of people. I liked being in the little niche industry. It felt special to be the person that knew something not a lot of people knew, and potatoes was that thing for me. My first job at the potato farm was driving the truck at harvest. I have done almost all of the jobs on the farm, from driving the truck to grading on the harvest line. It gives you a better perspective of what happens day-to-day on the farm. I think it gives me a lot of advantages in the position I am in now. I don’t take for granted the effort and the work that goes into getting the final product.”
The theme to Crook’s story is the connections she has made that helped guide her path to the next stop. The subsequent part of her story occurred as a student at Assiniboine Community College. At first going to Assiniboine Community College was a low key investment for Amanda as she could go to school in her hometown while she tried to figure out what her next step was. During her time there, it was a professor who helped propel her to her next stop in her journey.
“I had a really good experience at the community college,” Crook said. “I had a lot of really influential teachers. There was one person, Terry Powell, who was one of the teachers in my program. The program was ag business and it was a blend of agronomy and business classes. I remember I wasn’t even the one pursuing what I should do when I am done. I remember having a conversation with him and he said, ‘well, what is your plan after these two years?’ I responded with ‘I don’t know.’ He was like ‘well, I think you should continue your education.’ When I say influential I truly mean it. I think the right people gave me some well-timed advice. He had suggested looking at schools that have a 2+2 program. You can transfer your credits and then continue on for an additional two years.”
It was during this time Powell first suggested the University of Minnesota Crookston, where his daughter had attended. Crook had debated between UMN Crookston, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Saskatchewan. It was ultimately the close-knit community and the small town environment that made it apparent where her next stop should be.
“My family lived in Brandon, Manitoba. It is a four-and-a-half hour drive to Crookston. It isn’t very far. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the states, but my mom encouraged me to do it and check out UMC. It literally wasn’t a competition at that point. I had such a good experience on the tour and with the staff. My mom and I sat down and talked with Rob (Proulx), a lecturer in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department, that day and he was so relatable. I was going there to do ag business. Out of the blue I had casually mentioned I played soccer but hadn’t played competitively since I was maybe 18. The stars aligned perfectly and that is how it happened. In 2011 there was no out-of-state tuition, no penalty for being an international student and the exchange rate was in my favor. For every $100 I spent, I got $125. There were a lot of things that made sense. I also didn’t want to live in a big city.”
Crook was 23 when she started attending UMN Crookston in 2011. She felt she could relate to those students coming right out of high school and those students who were in their fourth year of their program.
“If I would have gone right out of high school, or come as a traditional third year, it would have been different had I been three years younger,” Crook said. “I don’t regret waiting to come to school.”
During her time at UMN Crookston, it was Proulx who helped her figure out the next steps in her life. She had an instant connection with him.
“Rob is also a young professor and I always felt like I was talking peer-to-peer with him,” Crook remarked. “He had a lot of really good advice, having gone through some advanced degrees. I would put him in the same class as Terry Powell in having someone there at the right time of your life. It is almost like you didn’t know you could do it until someone said you could do it. This sounds foolish now in hindsight, bless those people for being there and for saying something. I am glad they did. Rob was definitely the one who encouraged me. It was a similar conversation to the one I had with Terry involving what my plan would be after I received my bachelor’s from UMC. He gave me good advice about potentially pursuing a graduate degree and shared what he would do differently if he was to go through the process again. He was probably the one who lit the fire in me - it was our conversation that led me to believe this might be the next best step for me.”
It was at a career fair Crook attended during her time at UMN Crookston where she found a connection with Dr. Harlene Hatterman-Valenti at North Dakota State University. “There was a thought that I would find a continuing education booth at the fair, but there wasn’t. I was wandering around the gym and finally connected with Dr. Harlene Hatterman-Valenti. I told her I was interested in doing a master’s program centered on potatoes. She was like, ‘yes we need people working in the potato industry and I would love to have you.’ It is so interesting to look back and realize how these little moments built up. You don’t think about it at the time how it could be something so big.
Every part of Crook’s journey has led her to where she is now working for the Little Potato Company. Crook began working for the company in 2018 as a regional agronomist for central Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“At the time I was hired, LPC was really expanding their grower base. I oversaw six seed growers, one creamer grower, and two organic farms. I worked with both dryland and irrigation, developing agronomy plans, doing in-season scouting, developing production management in the field and storage. I did two full field seasons. A really fun one was my first year when we were looking after two farms in California.”
Her position has evolved over the past three years. In 2020 she began working in agronomic research for LPC. It was the right opportunity to find someone to focus specifically on agronomic research and it was the perfect fit for Crook.
“There are a lot of advances in our variety development program. All of our varieties are proprietary and are bred with the intention of being LPC creamer potatoes. We work with three different breeders across the globe. I look after and manage all of our agronomic research programs across the North American network. We primarily grow our creamer potatoes in western Canada, Washington, Wisconsin, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island. There are a lot of different nuances in those regions and trying to figure out how to best raise our potatoes. It is really neat that we have this proprietary variety set up, but it means we don’t get a manual with it. We have to figure out the best management practices and the only way to do that is through research trials. I am going into my first summer of getting the protocols written, establishing relationships with our collaborators, ensuring they have all the necessary seeds, products, and equipment to facilitate the trials. I just got word from two of our collaborators that planting is 50% done for two of our trials, which is very exciting.”
Every little part of Crook’s journey has played an integral role in leading her where she is today. It has been about the people, the correct timing, and the right places for her to learn and grow as an agronomist.
“Going back to grad school is where I got into the research side of things and figuring out how trials and replicated data works,” Crook stated. “It is a domino effect. There is no way to thank one without thanking the others. I still remember going back to my ACC roots, or even in Crookston, a lot of the stuff taught to you is what is general to the region. At ACC it was Canola and Wheat, and at Crookston it was a lot of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. Because they didn’t have a strong focus on potatoes, I was always the niche in the group. It was a situation where if they were going to give me flexibility on a project I was going to make it about potatoes. The professors supported this and tried to include potatoes more in the curriculum. There are many really neat crops out there where I think if there was exposure in school, people would gravitate towards them a little bit more. I was pretty lucky with all of it.”
It all comes back to finding her niche. Crook is working in a specified industry and she was able to get there through all the small cogs in the machine that helped move her forward. Whether it was professors like Rob Proulx or Terry Powell, or an agronomist like Blaine Sangster in Manitoba. Many people have helped pave the way for her career and were integral in a journey just beginning and is sure to grow in fascinating ways.