Erica Renaud plays many roles, but her passion for organic agriculture and seed research is connected to every one of them.
Since 2007, Renaud has been regional business manager for Vitalis Organic Seeds, the organic division of Enza Zaden Inc., Salinas, Calif. She helped drive sales from zero in 2007 to $14 million in 2018. Renaud played a key role in managing relationships with distributors, commercial accounts, and worked to establish the company as a leader in organic seed production and breeding company.
Playing a leadership and mentor role as a women in agriculture is something that Renaud also has a passion for.
Before the events were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Renaud had been planning to attend the Produce Marketing Association’s Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference in San Antonio and was also slated to speak at a women’s produce event in Dallas.
She also was a part of Stanford University’s Emerging Women’s Leadership Program in 2016.
Growing up in southern Ontario in a French Canadian family, Renaud’s career at first did not seem likely to intersect with the produce business.
“I originally wanted to study and work in international development, so I did my undergraduate degree in international development with a focus on agriculture and food policy,” she said.
After college, she started to farm organically in a small way. She soon caught the love for farming.
“I (farmed) for a number of years and decided to go back to school because I was enjoying the plant science side of it so much that I went back to do a master’s degree in agroecology with a focus on soil science,” she said.
From 1998 to 2002, Renaud worked as research farm manager for the Iowa-based Frontier Organic Research Farm, a large herb processing company specializing in dried herbs, spices, essential oils, teas and tinctures.
From there, she worked until 2004 at Rutgers University as sustainability and organic agriculture coordinator at A-SNAPP (Agribusiness for Sustainable Natural African Plant Products).
“Ultimately, I started to get into seed, and I was interested in organic seed, and specifically breeding varieties for organic agriculture,” she said.
At the time, the field was lonely. But Renaud saw potential in organic seed research.
“There were no universities in the U.S. doing anything with organic seed research at that time, but I was noticing that, within the production systems I was working in, I could see different genetic responses when you grow varieties organically versus conventionally,” she said.
Differences in performance in organic versus conventional can be linked to the slower release of nutrients in organic agriculture. Because of that, seed varieties were needed that were better adapted to organic growing, Renaud said.
“I went on this trajectory of exploring genetics best adapted to organic agriculture,” she said.
During that process of exploration, she ended up focusing on more on vegetables and then received a PhD in plant breeding at Wageningen University, focusing on broccoli.
Renaud considered how environmental conditions and geographical locations might change nutritional quality, and how breeders would select differently when breeding for organic agriculture.
“I started managing the organic division for a vegetable breeding company 13 years ago, and part of my role is to facilitate the inclusion of priority traits for the organic production systems and markets into our breeding programs,” she said.
Renaud is passionate that organic seed best serves the organic market.
“If you’re going to have an organic farm or greenhouse, and you’re going to be supplying certified organic products into the marketplace, your production system needs to start with certified organic seed,” she said.
“So what I’ve been focusing on is how you supply larger volumes of high quality genetics, with the traits needed for organic agriculture and wanted by the organic consumer; and we are pretty unique in that regard.”
Renaud says her team is “mission-driven.”
“I hire people who are dedicated to organic and are motivated by sustainability, and they are very passionate about what they do.” she said.
Renaud’s division also has more capable women than others in the field.
“I would say my team has higher percentage women, and that is also because, for years, I was the only woman ever in any meeting; I was tired of being alone,” she said.
Renaud’s overarching conviction is that all organic agriculture starts with organic seeds, and the growth of organic produce all around the world is fueling growth for the company.
Amy Kaplan, organic product specialist for Vitalis Organic Seeds, said Renaud combines years of practical experience with the highest level of education as a formally-trained plant breeder.
“Erica understands an organic vegetable grower’s unique production and certification requirements and works tirelessly to deliver seed solutions to her customers,” Kaplan said.
In addition, Kaplan said Renaud’s people skills are impressive.
“Erica’s fact-finding, inquisitive leadership approach is a delight to watch in person; she asks growers lots of questions and comes back with ambitious, innovative solutions, and has taught her team to do the same,” Kaplan said, noting Renaud’s work of several years to improve the shelf life of arugula.