iSEE Critical Conversation 2023: Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices and Resilience in the Midwest

Monday-Tuesday, Sept. 18-19, 2023

Orange & Blue Room, Illini Center, Chicago

For its fifth Critical Conversation, iSEE brought together diverse stakeholders for a two-day forum to discuss climate-smart commodities and agricultural practices, and their potential role in enhancing resilience in the Midwest. Stakeholders from across the agricultural supply chain, such as farmers, intermediate producers, food distributors, and consumers, as well as academics, industry, government, and nongovernment experts, provided perspectives on the resilience of current commodity crops and agricultural practices — and the potential opportunities and risks associated with the wider adoption of alternative crops and climate-smart agricultural strategies. The experts also identified possible incentives and strategies for the wider adoption of climate-smart agriculture and commodities and reimagining a new status quo in the context of a changing climate.

Critical Conversations are supported by a gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund, iSEE’s founding benefactor, administered by Joel Friedman and Loretta Namovic.



The 2023 Conversation opened with a keynote from Maggie Monast, Senior Director for Climate-Smart Agriculture, Finance & Markets, at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Read a Q&A with Monast previewing the Critical Conversation >>>


“Climate-Smart Agriculture: Overcoming Barriers and Financing the Transition”

Abstract: The agriculture sector is on the front lines of climate change. Crop and livestock production depends on access to healthy soil, adequate water supplies and predictable weather conditions, all of which are more difficult to access and manage as the climate changes. Farmers already experience higher temperatures, increasingly variable rainfall and more frequent droughts, storms, fires and floods that threaten production across the United States. While these risks are felt by all farmers, they are particularly challenging for small farms, farmers of color, and low-income farming communities.

Climate-smart agriculture offers the promise of reduced climate pollution from agriculture, increased resilience to impacts of climate change, and long-term farm profitability and stable livelihoods. However, realizing that promise will require transformative private and public investment. This presentation will delve into current trends in climate-smart agriculture, the essential information and partnerships to make progress, and the ways in which investment in climate-smart agriculture can be catalyzed at scale.

Bio: Maggie Monast works with agriculture financial institutions, food and agriculture companies, land grant universities, farmers and more to create an agricultural system that generates climate stability and secure farmer livelihoods. She works to quantify the farm financial impacts of climate-smart practice adoption, collaborates with major financial institutions and food companies to develop financial products and other solutions, and identifies policy solutions to facilitate investment and risk management that supports climate-smart agriculture. Monast has testified to Congress on the agriculture finance sector’s role in reducing climate-related financial risk and serves as co-chair of Field to Market’s Innovative Finance Committee. Read EDF’s reports and blogs on agriculture finance here >>>

Monast began working with EDF in 2011. She holds a master’s degree in Environmental Management with a focus on economics from Duke University and a Bachelors in Economics and Political Science from Tufts University.

More about Monast >>>

Read a Q&A with Monast previewing the Critical Conversation >>>

Watch her interview with WGN TV >>>

Her interview with CBS Chicago >>>

Her interview with Fox Chicago >>>


By following the Chatham House Rule for Critical Conversations, we aim to have an inclusive and engaging discussion to inform future research and initiate a collaborative network that will continue to consider multiple perspectives in a research agenda geared toward finding actionable solutions. After the two-day event, we aim to develop a high-profile publication that outlines a collaborative vision for a structured research program and innovative research projects that can deliver regional solutions to this critical issue.

A team consisting of academics and industry collaborators organized this event:

  • Shadi Atallah, Associate Professor of Agriculture & Consumer Economics, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Jean Brokish, Midwest Deputy Director, American Farmland Trust — read Brokish’s blog post about the Critical Conversation >>>
  • Travis Burke, Assistant Dean of Agriculture & Agri-Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Jonathan Coppess, Associate Professor of Agriculture & Consumer Economics and Director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Paul Gharzouzi, graduate student in Civil Engineering and iSEE Graduate Educational Research Intern, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Emily Heaton, Professor of Crop Sciences and Director of the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Madhu Khanna, Professor of Agriculture & Consumer Economics and iSEE Director, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Anya Knecht, Assistant Director of Operations at the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Michelle Marquart, Events and Client Relations Coordinator at iSEE, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Elizabeth Murphy, iSEE Managing Director, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Luis Rodríguez, Associate Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering and iSEE Associate Director for Education & Outreach, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Katherine Sterlau, postdoctoral student in Crop Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Process consultant and Facilitator Sarah Fisk, Senior Consultant, Community At Work


During the day-long workshop on Sept.19, invited participants tackled the myriad issues of climate-smarter commodities in the Midwest.

DAY 2 AGENDA: Tuesday, Sept. 19

8:45-9 a.m. — Check-in & Refreshments

9-9:30 a.m. — Welcome & Introductions

  • Madhu Khanna, Alvin H. Baum Family Fund Chair and Director, iSEE
  • Luis Rodríguez, Associate Director for Education & Outreach, iSEE
  • Sarah Fisk, Facilitator, Community At Work

9:30-11 a.m. — Session I: Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices and Resilience of Current Commodity Crops of the Midwest

  • Focus: Perspectives on the resilience of current commodity crops and agricultural practices facing a changing climate and consumer demand; opportunities and risks associated with the adoption of “climate-smart” management practices
  • Panelist Remarks — 9:30-10 a.m.
    • Randy DeSutter, Board Member, Corn Board of the National Corn Growers Association
    • Lauren Lurkins, Consultant, Lurkins Strategies LLC
    • Gabe McNunn, Vice President of Modeling and Data Science, Sustainable Environmental Consultants
    • Rob Stout, Farmer, Iowa
  • Group Conversation — 10-11 a.m.

11-11:15 a.m. — Break

11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m. — Session II: Diversifying Agriculture for Enhanced Resilience

  • Focus: Perspectives on the role of alternative crops and climate-smart strategies in improving resilience in the Midwest, and the benefits, barriers, and opportunities associated with their wider adoption
  • Panelist Remarks — 11:15-11:45 a.m.
    • Will Glazik, Manager, Cow Creek Organics
    • Vanessa Kulick Price, Senior Mediator and Program Manager, Meridian Institute
    • Cindy Nickerson, Deputy Chief Economist, Office of the Chief Economist at USDA
    • Linda Prokopy, Professor and Department Head of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University
  • Group Conversation — 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.

12:45-2:15 p.m. — Lunch

2:15-3:45 p.m. — Session III: Public and Private Sector Strategies for Resilience with Climate-Smart Agricultural Practices

  • Focus: Perspectives on the initiatives by the private and public sectors to achieve a wider adoption of climate-smart commodities and agricultural practices
  • Panelist Remarks — 2:15-2:45 p.m.
    • Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, USDA
    • Kevin Kephart, Deputy Director, Institute of Bioenergy, Climate, and Environment, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
    • Ryan Smith, Senior Manager of Regenerative Agriculture Impact and Partnerships, Danone
    • Bryan Stanek, Managing Director (New Markets), Compeer Financial
    • Renée Vassilos, Director of Agriculture Innovation, The Nature Conservancy
  • Group Conversation: 2:45-3:45 p.m.

3:45-4 p.m. — Break

4-4:50 p.m. — Wrap Up and Visioning

  • Goal: Imagine we “get this right,” whatever that means to you; how would that look to you? Is it more resilient? Is it more climate-smart?

4:50-5 p.m. — Closing


The Critical Conversation public keynote and panel discussions for invitees were at the Illini Center, 200 S. Wacker Drive, 19th Floor, Chicago, IL 60606.