From the Ground Up
Alumna Jane Maland Cady helps the McKnight Foundation support innovative farming across the globe.
Growers of quinoa in Bolivia are using new research and traditional techniques to improve the health of their soil, fight pests, and keep production sustainable in the face of exploding world demand for the grain. In Uganda, smallholder farmers in a hilly watershed that’s prone to erosion are working with the government and NGOs to increase tree planting to keep the soil from slipping away. Women-led grain-processing associations in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali are developing nutrient-rich foods that fight malnutrition.
These are just three of many agricultural initiatives in the Andes and Sub-Saharan Africa funded by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, a family philanthropy best known for its support of the arts, the environment, and community development here in Minnesota. And for 13 years, a U of M alumna raised on a farm in Blue Earth, Minnesota, has been at the helm of the foundation’s work with growers thousands of miles away—collaborating with them and with partner organizations to harvest agricultural knowledge that blends traditional practices, ecological understanding, and social uplift.
In the early 2000s, Jane Maland Cady (M.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’91) was selling fair-trade, natural, and organic products to major retailers, but dreaming of working in philanthropy. In 2007 she told a friend about her ambitions. The very next day, her friend saw a posting for the head of a new division of McKnight, simply labeled “International,” for its worldwide grantmaking programs. McKnight saw the depth of agricultural practice on Cady’s resume and made her an offer.
She would bring together existing agricultural programs in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia that were running independently. Under her leadership, she gave the newly unified division a basic orientation: agroecology, the promotion of farming practices that are sustainable and healthy for the planet. This focus includes concern for the empowerment of small-scale farmers and allied workers, particularly women, in East, South, and West Africa and the Andes. (The Southeast Asia program was phased out in 2020.)
By the time she joined McKnight, Maland Cady had, as she puts it, “touched all parts of the natural and organic value chain.” She grew up on a family farm and became interested in organic methods. She later earned her B.A. at Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a self-designed program in social justice with an emphasis on Latin America. She then earned an M.A. at the U of M, in agricultural education.
“I took every class I could,” she says. “Horticulture, soils, you name it, then I went to Brazil in a kind of alternative Peace Corps. The Lutheran church had started an agricultural program there that worked with agroecology and liberatory education, which was my focus.” (This field is characterized as seeking social change through education, combined with culturally responsive practices.)
A year and a half later, Maland Cady was back at the U of M for her doctorate, also in agricultural education. “I had amazing courses,” she says. “You could actually start talking more than before about agroecology, organic, ecologically oriented agriculture.”
While in graduate school, Maland Cady learned how to certify organic products, and worked on research on Minnesota farms, becoming committed to the role of farmers in the design and evaluation of ag research. “When we’re identifying issues to address, farmers should have a voice in that,” she says. These experiences led her to create a consultancy, Criando Research and Evaluation Services, that assessed agricultural programs in Minnesota and Brazil—and then to her founding Naterra Naturals, where she worked to get organic products on the shelves of Safeway and other big chains.
At McKnight, Maland Cady has crafted funding programs that emphasize close cooperation between local scientific and governmental bodies and organizations made up of those actually working on the land. “In West Africa, for example, we gave the lead on a grant to a farmer organization, and their partner was the country’s National Research Institute. In the beginning, those scientists said ‘no, we should be in charge.’ And now, over time, they’ve developed relationships that are a lot more horizontal, more inclusive. They collaborate, because they each bring different pieces of the puzzle.”
Ask a longtime colleague like Mark Ritchie (B.A. ’86) to sum up her impact, and he underlines Maland Cady's ability to connect people and find collaborative synergies. Ritchie, an agricultural policy expert who served as Minnesota Secretary of State and currently leads the internationally focused nonprofit Global Minnesota, recalls a time in 2020 when he and Maland Cady were helping organize a big in-person event in the Twin Cities for World Food Day. Then Covid hit. “I got on the phone with her and she immediately came up with all kinds of contacts around the world,” says Ritchie. “Thanks to her, our virtual event had more than two dozen countries involved and four times more people than ever before.”
One of the sources of Maland Cady’s global reach, and another expression of her passion for connection, is her position as cochair of the steering committee of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a consortium of philanthropies that promotes agricultural and food-systems research around the world. As McKnight’s representative, she was pivotal in getting the organization up and running, according to Ruth Richardson, executive director of the Alliance. “Ever since,” says Richardson, “Jane has been an extremely active member and has weighed in on all of the work the Alliance does.”
The Alliance has four official focal points, dubbed “impact areas”: true-cost accounting, agroecology, health and well-being, and climate. “Jane has been involved in all of those,” says Richardson, “because she is such a systems thinker. She sees all of the relationships between all of those things and the importance of connecting them.”
Call it the big picture, the holistic approach, or a passion for connection, it’s been Maland Cady’s lifelong credo.
Jon Spayde is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.