UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This past summer, Izaiah Bokunewicz, a plant sciences major in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, had a unique opportunity to advance his knowledge of food security and global hunger by participating in a program sponsored by Land O'Lakes.
Bokunewicz, of Philadelphia, was one of only 10 rising juniors from six universities from around the country to be selected to take part in the Global Food Challenge — Emerging Leaders for Food Security. Land O'Lakes, a farmer-owned cooperative, created the program in 2014 to engage future leaders in the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture in the future.
The 12-week internship began at the company's headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the students were split into three project teams. His group focused on specialty dairy foods with an emphasis on college and university dining. The group developed a marketing platform giving Land O'Lakes' customers the story behind their food products.
"Land O'Lakes is farmer-owned; in fact, there are several Land O'Lakes farms near the university," said Bokunewicz, whose lifelong interest in agriculture grew from his experiences on his extended family's large dairy farm. "The biggest question is how the company can best provide information about its dairy products that's specific to local areas and relative to sustainability measures."
During the internship, each participant was assigned a sponsor at Land O'Lakes, in addition to faculty advisers from their universities. Bokunewicz's sponsor at Land O'Lakes was Glenda Gehl, director of member relations.
"I truly enjoyed sponsoring Izaiah in the Global Food Challenge internship program," Gehl said, noting that she visited him last spring at Penn State, where he took her on a tour of the hydroponic garden at the Student Farm at Penn State, which supplies lettuce to the on-campus dining commons.
She said his passion for that project — Bokunewicz serves on the farm's leadership team — aligns directly with Land O'Lakes' mission of feeding human progress, and that made him a perfect fit for the internship program.
Bokunewicz's Penn State adviser, Greg Roth, professor emeritus of agronomy, helped him prepare for the internship.
"Izaiah has an interest in horticulture, entrepreneurship and international agriculture," Roth said. "He's a bright student, and I knew he'd be a good fit for the Land O'Lakes program."
During the second part of the internship, the students and their faculty advisers traveled to Africa to learn about Land O'Lakes' industrial supply chain. The interns spent several days in Malawi, where they met with residents in small farming communities who are working with companies like Land O'Lakes and international agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Malawi has been one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is on the rise," Bokunewicz said. "We met with a lot of small-scale farmers, families who only had one or two cows. Through cooperatives, these farmers joined their neighbors and pooled their resources until they had 40 or 50 cows. With the added income, the group could purchase something like a yogurt-making machine, which in turn increases the value of their products."
Roth added that the trip to Africa was the adventure of a lifetime.
"For me, and I think the students, too, this trip really showcased the potential of investing in Africa," he said. "Seeing the positive impact that these cooperatives have had on villages and the pride the people take in their work proved that the future of agriculture in Africa is good."
The second leg of the trip took the interns to South Africa, which is much more industrialized than Malawi. They visited vineyards, fruit farms and a Land O'Lakes partner, Villa Crop Productions, to learn about the fertilizer industry and sales.
After the students returned from Africa, they traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn more about agricultural policy. They met with legislators, including representatives from Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and a Land O'Lakes full-time representative to talk about problems facing agricultural industries.
The interns paired up for their final travel experience. Bokunewicz and his partner visited Valley Ag Cooperative in Idaho, which purchases fertilizers in bulk from Land O'Lakes and distributes them to farmers across the state. During the trip, they visited potato, onion and asparagus growers and Forage Genetics International's alfalfa breeding program.
The Global Food Challenge Emerging Leaders program will not be Bokunewicz's last experience with Land O'Lakes. He will spend next summer at WinField United, an agronomy crop inputs company owned by Land O'Lakes in River Falls, Wisconsin, where he will be a seed treatment research intern and can continue to explore his passion and area of study, noted Gehl.
"Being part of Land O'Lakes and this internship was amazing and truly an eye-opening experience," Bokunewicz said. "The leadership and guidance I received made a lasting impact on my future. I'm looking forward to spending the summer back with Land O'Lakes."
He added that he is grateful for everyone who supported him along the way, including the internship students, Gehl, Roth and Lori Connelly, director of experiential learning and career services for the college, who helped him hone his application.
"So much of progressing through your major and learning about new opportunities is based on in-person conversation," he said. "Taking advantage of the services and opportunities offered by Penn State and getting to know the faculty is hugely beneficial."