Leaine Souza

California (dairy) girl

An undaunted talent defying boundaries in the ag industry, from quality roles to leadership positions

Leaine Souza is a dairy girl through and through. In California’s central valley, where you might just see palm trees mixed in with farm land, she was exposed to the agriculture industry through her parents and extended family growing up. Her involvement in FFA and 4H helped, too. As a dairy products judge, she won the state finals (which in California terms is rather impressive), which accelerated her interest in pursuing a career in the dairy industry. Leaine earned a degree in dairy science with a concentration in processing from Cal-Poly. And then, she broke boundaries right out of the gate as an operations supervisor at California Dairies, a large dairy processor in Visalia, California.

“I was the first woman supervisor in the plant! And because I was so young some of the guys pushed back at first and didn’t want me to train them. It really shaped my approach to working on a team,” says Leaine. “I didn’t know it all, so I made sure they knew I wanted to learn from them along the way. I ended up becoming very close with the people there.”

In the traditionally male-dominated industries of manufacturing and agriculture, Leaine had anticipated some of that resistance after speaking with her uncle who had had a long career at the plant. But it didn’t deter her. Rather, it motivated her. After a few successful years on the plant floor, Leaine decided she wanted to learn about quality. And when she saw an open position at Land O’Lakes, Inc., she thought, “where better to learn?”

A leader is born

In Tulare, California, Land O’Lakes makes a lot of butter–more than 180 million pounds per year to be exact. At the time Leaine joined the team in 2005, the Tulare plant made cheese, too. It was in the cheese plant where she started out as a quality manager and realized she was ready to expand her career to include leadership roles.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had really good mentors. We would talk about what I wanted to accomplish. Knowing that I wanted to move up and gain more experience, they saw the potential in me so it motivated me to work hard in that direction.”

That hard work certainly paid off. Leaine held four roles on the Quality team–including a remote role with the Corporate Quality team with responsibility for the Tulare, Kent and Carlisle facilities. Her favorite part about those positions were the skills she built while driving consistency between the plants and the enterprise quality programs.

“At Tulare, I had direct supervisory reports. In my corporate role, I built my guiding and influencing skills. I couldn’t just come into a facility and dictate how things had to be, so I worked with different people and teams to both learn their processes and implement the quality programs at each location. I liked that a lot.”

During one of her team’s annual meetings, Beth Ford, executive vice president and Group COO, spoke with the group. Something she said stuck with Leaine.

“Beth gave great advice: own your own career path and get out of your comfort zone. It got me thinking about my own career,” says Leaine. “I liked what I was doing in Quality, but I thought ‘how could I become a more well-rounded employee and further develop my skills and experiences?’”

It was a fateful thought as Leaine’s career path would soon progress again, this time to the Member Relations team.

A new opportunity

Living near and working in Tulare, Leaine was always interested in the work of Land O’Lakes member-owners that farm in the nearby cities and towns. They were her husband’s colleagues (he sells dairy pharmaceuticals), a part of their community and were facing challenges Leaine hoped to help them with as it related to milk prices, regulation and the misperceptions of modern agriculture. “I thought it’d be meaningful to advocate for the dairymen and dairywomen and learn that side of Land O’Lakes’ business. I knew the plant inside and out, but to understand the co-op and business side for our members was really appealing to me,” says Leaine.

In her role as Member Relations manager, Leaine’s days are never the same. Whether it’s discussing milk quality, production volume or customer requests, Leaine supports the business operations of members that make up the West region. She also helps deliver exclusive products and services offered by Land O’Lakes that could help them become more efficient, sustainable or profitable in the short and long run.

“It’s so interesting to see how each farmer-member runs their business. Each one is different and one way of doing things isn’t better than the other. When we’re rolling out programs, products or services, it’s important to look at the whole membership and understand how changes are going to affect each member and how,” says Leaine.

Of the 180 member-owners Leaine’s team supports, the milking herd sizes range from 200 cows to more than 10,000. The milk is shipped to Tulare, which is subsequently turned into cheese, powder, pudding or butter. Members receive patronage (or a portion of company earnings) based on how much milk they ship to Land O’Lakes.

“Coming from the plant, it was helpful that I understood how everything worked there so I could help members better understand when there was an issue, like if their milk pickup was delayed. It was a lot of work to understand patronage, milk pricing and the pending regulations affecting farmers, but that’s what is continually challenging–and rewarding–about this job,” Leaine says.

The future is bright

A little over two years into her role on the Member Relations team, she leans on her team to continue to learn the issues affecting members’ business. In California, environmental regulations are making it harder for farmers to stay in business. But Leaine’s inspired by the member-owners she works with who are striving to become more efficient and preserve our natural resources as they’ve done for generations. Whether it’s consulting on sustainability projects like methane digesters, drip irrigation systems or solar panels, Leaine sees a lot of commonalities across membership.

“They all truly care about their animals and their business. To be a dairy farmer in California, you have to love it,” she says.

As Leaine reflects on what’s next in her career–and her life (baby #3 is on the way, due in November!)–she also makes time to recruit new leaders to our industry at her alma-mater. Every time she shares the diverse and rewarding opportunities that agriculture and Land O’Lakes offers, students, especially those without an ag background, they become very interested in joining our pursuit of feeding human progress.

As for Leaine’s next move?

“I want to reach the director level at some point, and I’m really thankful to be understanding the co-op and business side of Member Relations,” Leaine says. But she laughs and adds, not surprisingly given her path so far, “I’m also open to new things…so we’ll see!”