The University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) recently welcomed a familiar face as the new Assistant Statewide Director. Constance Carlson, who has been part of RSDP’s Statewide Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems team since 2016, transitioned into the position this summer. She brings with her an abundance of experience, including a personal background growing up rural Minnesota and an extensive career in professional communications and leadership.
Growing up rural
Carlson points directly to growing up on a small, organic farm in Madison, Minnesota as foundational to her identity, perspective and values. She grew up with her grandparents and multiple aunts, uncles and cousins within a short distance from her family farm -- a farm her mother and father purchased the year before she was born and continue to operate today.
“I count myself incredibly fortunate that I can still drive out to my childhood home and walk the fields and woods where I was raised,” says Carlson. As a child of the 80’s, aware of the farm crisis unfolding around me, I lived with significant uncertainty about the stability and permanence of the farm, land and my community.”
“I often tell the story of the rows of empty lockers in my high school, ghosts from a former time that were a daily reminder of what had been.” The boarded up stores, movie theaters and farm buildings in her community were a constant reminder of the challenges of living in rural Minnesota, and they left a deep impression on Carlson.
“There was continual encouragement for me, my siblings and peers to leave our communities to pursue education and careers. There seemed to be an undercurrent of belief that rural Minnesota had nothing to offer.”
And at the time, Carlson thought the same. After graduating, she left Madison and went on to earn a double-degree in English and Theater from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. From there, she took a career path that included managing an independent bookstore, launching and running a theatre company, and directing the trade and consumer division at a respected Minnesota publishing company.
Returning to her roots
By 2011, Carlson was working at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, directing the marketing, sales and product development for an international art piece called The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated manuscript to be commissioned since the advent of the printing press. Pages are still on exhibit at Saint John’s and locations throughout the world.
That year, the Saint John’s leadership reorganized their business structure and Carlson had an opportunity to work from her home in Buffalo. The new role wasn’t full time, so she started to do freelance marketing and consulting work.
“After nearly two decades of professional work that required me to commute to an office, I found myself in a position where I could work, network and volunteer in my community, meet my neighbors and make friends. It changed my life.” She explains.
It was during this time that Carlson reconnected with her agricultural roots by joining a community group working to launch a food co-op. Through this work, Carlson became involved with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and engaged with food systems leaders from across the state.
It was also during this time that Carlson was introduced to a new crop called Kernza, the first commercially viable perennial grain available in the United States.
In 2011, Dr. Don Wyse, co-founder of the UMN Forever Green Initiative, gave several pounds of Kernza to Carlson’s Dad, Carmen Fernholz. Fernholz planted it at his Madison farm and the following year, Carlson had her first glimpse of this new crop. She remembers walking through it, watching it wave in the wind, and thinking that she was looking at something that could deeply impact Minnesota agriculture.
Five short years later, Carlson joined the RSDP Statewide Sustainable Ag and Food Systems team. Under Director Greg Schweser she took on a temporary supply chain and marketing position. Through the ensuing years, thanks to grant funding, internal support, and guidance from many people, Carlson’s role kept evolving and her most recent focus at the University was working with both RSDP and Forever Green to develop the supply chains and markets for Kernza and sixteen other crops in the FGI portfolio.
Bringing ideas to life
Whether it’s a theater production, a book, a consumer product or even a new crop, throughout her career, Carlson’s work has been focused on working collaboratively and creatively to take ideas and bring them to life. She intends to do the same in her new role as Assistant Director.
“I’m thrilled to take my years of collaboration, storytelling and creativity and bring them to this position to highlight how much greater Minnesota does have to offer. RSDP has been telling this story for 25 years and I’m proud to contribute to that legacy.”