Q&A with Liz Dickson, Grower Relations, Suterra

Liz Dickson grew up in California’s Central Valley; her father was an auto electrician and her mother worked for the County. She thought she wanted to be a corporate attorney and work on Wall Street. But she eventually discovered her passion is for agriculture, and so she pursued a master’s degree in plant science at Cal State Fresno. Her proudest moment was walking across the stage to receive her degree, with friends and family in the audience. She recently joined Suterra as Key Accounts Manager in Grower Relations.

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in California’s Central Valley in the Fresno/Clovis area.

What motivated you to attend Cal State Fresno and get a Master’s degree in Plant Science

Liz & her mom in Egypt

I have a passion for agriculture and science. The two were a perfect pairing!

Can you tell us about your family?  Are they involved in farming?  What did you want to be when you grew up?

My father was an auto electrician and my mother worked for the County. Neither of my parents was involved in farming, but I had an uncle who farmed wine grapes and peaches in Kingsburg and another who farmed prunes in Northern California.  I thought I wanted to work on Wall Street and be a Corporate Attorney.

Who is the most influential person in your life?

My beautiful Mother. No matter how awful a situation might be, she’ll get through it with a smile!

You wrote your thesis on grapevine fertilization rates.  What was the premise of that research and what did you learn from it?

We wanted to see if variable nitrogen rates would impact yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN) in Cabernet grapes. What we learned was there was a significant difference in YAN from fruit the first year but, not in the second year.

Your current position at Suterra is to help winegrowers throughout California combat grapevine mealybugs.  Can you tell us what an average day on the job is like?

Liz with co-worker, Andrea Holeman

Since I am still new at the company, much of my in-office days are learning about Suterra’s products, staying up on market trends, and planning which industry meetings will be most valuable to me and my growers. Another part of my day includes planning what part of California I need to be in for grower meetings.

Vine Mealybug is the one we have a pheromone for and the super spreader of grapevine leafroll-associated viruses. Both grape and vine mealy bugs contribute to honeydew production which acts as a substrate for sooty mold, rot, and making the fruit unusable for consumption and wine production. They are gross, nasty little creatures!

Do you work in an office or are you out in the vineyard?

Fortunately, most of my week is spent out in the field meeting with growers.

What are you proudest of in your life? Were there any times when you weren’t sure you could “make it through?” Tell us what happened!

One of the proudest moments of my life was when I walked across the stage to receive my master’s degree knowing my family and friends were there to share that moment. I was married, had two young children, and lived almost an hour and a half away from school and work. I was exhausted and felt like I couldn’t form a proper sentence to save my life. But I was so blessed to have my family’s support with the kids, my husband’s love and encouragement, and an amazing thesis committee. Dr. Robert Wample pushed me to be prepared to answer questions related to my research. Dr. Sanliang Gu taught me how to review papers, organize citations, and write. Dr. Susan Rodriguez was an incredible friend and professor who took the time to help me focus my thoughts when all I wanted to do was cry. I will always have a special place in my heart for Dr. Rodriguez and her husband Dr. Roy Thornton!  

In the past you’ve worked with a few different wineries who were buying their grapes from multiple growers.  Your job was to negotiate the purchase contracts, estimate crop yields, and schedule the harvest picks.  Do you have any unusual situations that you had to deal with – such as wildfires or thunderstorms or road closures?  How did you resolve them?

Fortunately, most of the grapes I purchased were not totally impacted by fires or road closures. We did, however, have to contend with heavy rainstorms late in the season. Growers get anxious when a storm is coming and who can blame them? The crops are their livelihood. When storms come in while harvesting on the Westside, equipment can get stuck! The soils are heavy clay and become slippery and muddy very quickly. When growers, harvesters, and trucking start calling, the focus is getting equipment and people out before harvest equipment and trucks get trapped. You have to be flexible and keep the lines of communication open with everyone involved especially the winery. 

With growers and winemakers as your primary constituencies, is wine also a part of your home life?

Do you have a favorite grape variety?

Of course, wine is served at our home. I have many favorites to drink There are so many wonderful flavors in the vineyards that can become amazing wines. To grow, I enjoyed Petite Syrah and Pinot Noir.

In your free time, what sports, hobbies, or special causes are you involved in? 

I am a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys!

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why is that an important destination for you?

The next big trip I want to take is an African Safari. It used to be purely for photographing the most beautiful and possibly dangerous animals in the world. Now, after spending time in North Africa (Egypt) and being so moved by the Egyptian people, I want to learn more about the various cultures in the Savannas of Southern Africa.

What do you value most and why?

I value honesty and a solid work ethic. Sometimes the hardest thing to be is honest when a job is on the line or something needing to be said could hurt someone you love or admire. You just need to trust, at the end of the day integrity will win. I appreciate a solid work ethic. Do your job and do it to the best of your ability. We are all busy and don’t need to be a burden to our peers.

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