Barry McNamara  |   Published April 09, 2018

Whiteman Lecture

Board member Dennis Plummer ’73 addresses changing food/ag landscape
  • Dennis Plummer ’73 poses with Ralph Whiteman ’52 shortly after delivering Monmouth College’s 24th Wendell Whiteman Memorial Lecture.
MONMOUTH, Ill. – The keynote address for last weekend’s Alumni Science Symposium at Monmouth College focused on change.

Three days later, the driving force of change in science was also at the heart of the College’s 24th Wendell Whiteman Memorial Lecture, delivered Tuesday morning in Dahl Chapel and Auditorium by former Monsanto executive Dennis Plummer ’73.

Plummer, who is a member of the Monmouth College Board of Trustees, gave the talk “The Changing Food/Agriculture Landscape: Established Corporations Facing Technological Innovation by Startups and Venture Capitalists.”

Plummer has seen both sides of that subtitle, working 28 years for Monsanto, which grew into a $14 billion corporation during his time with the company. Today, he is co-founder and executive vice president of the fledgling company Arvegenix, which is developing the oilseed field pennycress, a crop that grows after corn is harvested in the fall and produces “oils with desirable properties.”

Plummer noted that Arvegenix is among a group of ag tech start-up companies in the Midwest which have emerged to focus on issues that can’t be easily addressed by larger ag corporations.

“Ten years ago, none of these would’ve existed,” he said. “They would’ve been too much for the big companies to take on.”

Ag tech is more than how to grow the best corn and soybeans, or how to grow those crops the most efficiently, and Plummer said the field is full of niche opportunities.

“There’s some pretty exciting stuff out there,” said Plummer, citing a list of innovations such as vertical farms, robots, in-home waste recycling, algae-based wastewater treatment, gene-editing and smart refrigerators, as well as probiotics and biologicals replacing pesticides.

To the students in the Dahl Chapel audience, Plummer offered a list of tips he hoped they’d find helpful in their future careers, including obtaining experiences, having business majors learn about science (and vice versa), keeping their education going, learning a foreign language, becoming “world-class” at a discipline or function, sharpening communication and interpersonal skills, building relationships and trust, and realizing that leadership is collaborative.

He also advised students to “find a field that fits” them. Another part of determining fit, he said, is deciding if they are more suited for a big company or a small start-up.

Plummer said he has appreciated working in the collaborative environment of a smaller company since he left Monsanto.

“At most big companies, the scientists are out on their own, maybe 10 miles away,” he said. “At smaller companies, it’s easier to have that collaboration (between the science and business side). You can say to them, ‘Is it possible to edit that gene out?’ That would never happen at Monsanto, but you can do it at a start-up. That’s what’s fun about working at a start-up. You get to do a little bit of everything.”

Plummer also advised students to build relationships, recalling two times when he “was fairly junior at Monsanto” when he was asked to show around foreign visitors and help train them about the company’s operations. Plummer became friends with both guests, and both eventually became CEO of Monsanto. Plummer wound up working for both of them as their chief of staff.

“You can make friends in all kinds of places,” Plummer said. “You’ll find that those kinds of relationships will be good for you.”

In addition to Arvegenix, another ag tech start-up with a Monmouth tie is the Farmers Business Network, which got its start in Monmouth through a Monsanto connection and the assistance of Monmouth College faculty members.

“The Farmers Business Network was founded right here in Monmouth,” said Plummer. “These things can start anywhere. It is considered one of the biggest ag tech companies,” ranking fourth on a list of farm tech deals that Plummer showed.

The Wendell Whiteman Memorial Lecture annually brings prominent leaders of American business and industry to Monmouth. It is named in memory of Wendell Whiteman, an alumnus of the College and long-time executive of Security Savings Bank in Monmouth.

Plummer was the eighth Monmouth graduate to speak in the series, joining last year’s speaker, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor ’97, as well as the late Harold “Red” Poling ’49, Walter Huff ’56, the late James Pate ’63, John Courson ’64, Kevin Goodwin ’80 and Hiroyuki Fujita ’92.

Listen to an April 10 interview of Dennis Plummer ’73 on WRAM-AM/FM.
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