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Q&A with Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer Maria Skora
Land O'Lakes, Inc. Quality Operations Manager Maria Skora debriefs about her time in Lebanon
Since 1987, we have been delivering a range of agricultural expertise to developing countries via the Farmer-to-Farmer program which sends American volunteers on short-term assignments to address needs of agribusinesses and farmers. Today, we’re talking to Maria Skora from Land O’Lakes, Inc. about her recent assignment in Lebanon.

What is your role with Land O’Lakes, Inc. and why did you choose this career path?
I am a Quality Operations Manager for Dairy Foods. My job is to assist Land O’Lakes plants to meet our Quality Management Systems. Food science and the production of food is fascinating to me. We all need food. As our population grows, we have the challenge of keeping up with demand. I often think about the complexity of massive food production, and food safety and quality are important components.

Tell us about your Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer opportunity.
This was my second assignment with Farmer-to-Farmer. Last year, I co-taught a Hazards and Critical Control Points (HACCP) training for students at the University of Beirut in Lebanon. After the week-long training, we visited processors to help apply the concepts learned during the training.

This year, I went to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon for two weeks to support the Chamber of Commerce who provides advice to local processors to stimulate economic development. We worked with various food processors interested in improving practices to meet Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) requirements. These are some examples:
  • A potato and carrot packing house was looking to optimize the process flow of their operation to introduce the packing of cherries and grapes for export. Cherries and grapes are ready-to-eat products which require special handling. 
  • A cherry and grape packer sought advice on how to update their equipment and building flow to expand production of jellies and jams for local and export sales.
  • A large-scale bakery was producing goods, like crackers and decorated cakes, for grocery shelves and store fronts. They wanted to update their infrastructure.
  • A dairy processor was looking for assistance assessing the hazards of their process to improve their HACCP plan.
The challenges were very different for each product. My role was to help them with their unique situations and offer tools and guidance to assess risk and meet GFSI requirements.
 
What did you take away from this experience?
My education and professional experience are a toolkit I can share to help others. It’s rewarding to offer this knowledge to help businesses become more efficient and achieve their goals. I came back energized and feeling good about my contributions.

It also adds to my professional ability at Land O’Lakes. Lebanese food companies are most interested in gaining FSSC 22000 certification which is based on International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It is a GFSI recognized scheme.  This gave me the opportunity to compare FSSC with the schemes used by Land O’Lakes dairy foods. The most interesting part of this work is the value customers and consumers place in this type of certification.

And overall, this experience helped me see the food industry in a new way. When you see other supply chains and different cultures, it advances your way of thinking.

Anything else you want to share with fellow employees?
If you are considering a volunteer opportunity with Land O’Lakes Venture37, ask yourself one question: Am I comfortable being uncomfortable? You’ll be hungry and hot, you’ll have long days, you’ll face language barriers, you’ll miss home conveniences. If you’re ok with all of this and more, then go. Keep an open mind. Pack light. Give it a chance – you may come back a different person.

Interested in learning more about volunteering for a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment? Contact Maggie Yarosh at MYarosh@landolakes.com.
By Ashley Peterson 02/03/2020