Jessie Hilby: From Iowa State Agronomy to Feed Iowa First

October 7, 2020

Students in agronomy have a wide variety of unique career opportunities to pursue post-graduation. Jessie Hilby is an excellent example of an individual that went out of her comfort zone to take on a career to help communities out.

Jessie Hilby graduated in May of 2020 with her bachelor's degree in agronomy. She is currently working as the Gleaning Coordinator at Feed Iowa First. Her position is within the AmeriCorp 4-H Iowa Produce Gleaning Program.

"Day-to-day my time is spent either on my computer, working in the shop, out in the field, or a combination of these. My job as the Gleaning Coordinator includes researching new farms or individuals that grow fruits or veggies, who I can reach out to and contact," said Jessie. "I ask them if they have any extra produce they don't have a use for that would otherwise be wasted or left out in the field or garden."

If the farm has excess produce, she arranges the details to get it whether she comes to get it or they drop it off. If she picks it up, she either grabs what they are willing to donate, or she gets to glean from their crop leftovers. If there is a large amount of produce to pick, Jessie will organize an event on Facebook to encourage volunteers to help glean produce with her. Jessie also gets to work with volunteers during specified Volunteer Shop Hours.

"In the shop, I bring in produce and weigh everything in and record produce weight and details to help track how much produce comes through our organization. I also spend time washing produce and crates," said Jessie.

Jessie also gets to help distribute the produce and explained that Feed Iowa First also has connections to food pantries in Cedar Rapids where they can drop off extra vegetables stored in their cooler.

"I love the entire process of seeing the food go from the field to the shop, weighing it and cleaning it, storing it, and then taking it out for distribution. I've learned so much about different vegetable varieties and the types of produce that can grow in Iowa. It's so rewarding seeing the excited faces of children and the thankfulness of their parents during our interaction out on distribution," said Jessie.

Knowing that families get fresh produce to cook with all week makes Jessie's day. The communities look forward to them coming back, and each location is unique in its cultural makeup and their produce choices, which keeps the job interesting. 

"Many people came together during the Derecho. Through the devastation, it was amazing to see how many vegetables we had come in and go out straight away to feed people in Cedar Rapids," said Jessie.

Jessie noted that her time with Iowa State Agronomy helped give her the confidence to reach out to farmers. Agronomy involves a lot of communication with farmers to determine what's best for their crop, soil, and management style. With her job at Feed Iowa First, Jessie can connect with farmers and gardeners to advocate in agriculture with more of an expanded approach.

"Being a part of IAAS at Iowa State also helped me prepare for this career. In IAAS I visited urban gardens and learned about startups in the food production/agriculture sector. Feed Iowa First has a lot of partnering individuals who are involved in urban gardening and who are gaining more knowledge and skills on various types of produce," said Jessie. "Our organization has roughly 26 urban gardens throughout the Cedar Rapids area that are on church grounds and business grounds that would otherwise be mowing grass in these areas."

Jessie ended with sharing that their most incredible glean so far was making three trips up to Waterloo, Iowa, where they harvested 11,340 pounds of onions!

"It's quite interesting to be a part of a new development in Iowa (the  Gleaning Produce Network) through AmeriCorp 4-H. I think it's great that there is an increased focus in Iowa to see people get the food they need, especially related to gathering produce that would otherwise go to waste," said Jessie.