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Engineering Agriculture

Industrial engineering graduate student Jazmine Davis zaps inefficiencies at food hubs and on the farm.
Industrial engineering graduate student Jazmine Davis zaps inefficiencies at food hubs and on the farm.

Somewhere between the 4 a.m. wakeup call to milk the cow and the afternoon business meeting over fresh milk and cookies, industrial engineering student Jazmine Davis fell in love with agriculture.

She had already helped improve efficiency at private corporations and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, but helping to develop a family-owned Yancey County dairy farm gave her skills new meaning.

“This is going to sound melodramatic, but working in agriculture honestly has changed my life,” Jazmine said.

Diverse problem-solving

That kind of interdisciplinary crossover is a goal of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), which connects students like Jazmine with agriculture needs across the state. English majors and MBAs get a rare opportunity to partner with agriculture professionals and build creative solutions to persistent challenges. As a supply chain fellow, Jazmine’s work has been facilitated through NC Growing Together, an initiative within CEFS that emphasizes locally produced food.

Fostering collaboration between a diversity of skills and outlooks produces great benefits, said Rebecca Dunning, research assistant professor at CEFS and director of NC Growing Together.

“Students want to apply what they’ve learned in school in ways that serve others,” Dunning said. “CEFS can draw on its network of partners across North Carolina to connect eager and talented students like Jazmine to meaningful projects that benefit both the partner, and the student.”

Broadening horizons

For some interdisciplinary students, their agricultural collaboration is a one-time exercise that broadens their perspective as they continue along the traditional career path for their major.

Others find a new trajectory. After her dairy farm project ended, Jazmine signed up as a supply chain fellow through CEFS and NC Growing Together. She now works at a Durham-based organic food hub Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) two to three days a week.

Her goal is to help transform agricultural challenges into opportunities for both economic impact and community health. So far, “she’s been a star,” Operations and Logistics Manager Sebastian Naskaris said.

“You’ve got to have a playful mind, be smart as a whip and not mind getting your hands dirty,” Naskaris said. “Jazmine is all those things.”

First, she created a tutorial for bar-coded labels to enhance traceability, allowing greater food safety and increased efficiency. Next, she began building a technology tool to optimize ECO’s transportation network.

“She’s able to take the best of the world she comes from and creatively marry that with the stakeholders we’re trying to serve and the values we’re trying to uphold,” Naskaris said.

“Everybody needs industrial engineers”

In a highly competitive food environment, efficiently engineered systems are one of the keys to creating a self-sustaining business that feeds a healthy local food system, Naskaris said.

As the demand for local food increases, so does the importance of bringing in industrial engineers with a long-term view on ecological and social responsibility, Naskaris said.

“We’ve seen the effects of what happens if you don’t have responsible practices in place, which can deplete the soil and ecological health, and therefore create scarcity,” he said.

Looking to the future

Jazmine will graduate from NC State University’s College of Engineering with a graduate degree in integrated manufacturing systems with a concentration in logistics in May 2017.

It’s not just Jazmine’s work wardrobe that’s changed – “I get to wear a T-shirt to work, which is awesome,” she says with a grin – but also her outlook on life. She eats all local food now, and is planning a backyard herb garden. She loves her work at ECO, and hopes to stay involved in the agricultural community after graduation.

“These are my favorite days of the week,” she said.