Interview with Trudie Rust, Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Auditor

Trudie Rust works as an organic and sustainable agriculture auditor and certification decision officer at Ecocert, one of the largest organic certification organisations in the world. In this interview she talks about her role, shares her thoughts on gender equality and gives advice to young women. 

What did you want to be as a child when you 'grew up? How did you find out about your current career and what is it that attracted you to it?

I've always wanted to work with people and have strongly considered studying education. My interest in education comes from having a mother who was a teacher. Perhaps someday I'll be able to fulfill that dream as well. I didn't know what I wanted to study at university. As I browsed the different faculties at Stellenbosch, I found the Bachelor of Science in Food Science under the Faculty of Agri Sciences. I didn't know much about Food Science, but one thing I knew for certain was that I liked to eat! Through combining my passion for food and the physical sciences I have found myself in the most exciting, most rapidly growing field! My friend and I took a study break and went to Lanzerac at the end of 2019. We received an email from the Department of Food Science advertising a position for an Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Auditor. It was pointed out that you would also need to travel to other countries in Southern Africa. Yes, I love travelling! Having studied Food Science, I learned about food packaging, processing, and how to kill Listeria using the correct temperature and time, but I knew nothing about agriculture, pesticides, and sustainability. The organic concept was at least familiar to me. In spite of this, I applied for the post and did a lot of Googling.

Describe your job as as an organic auditor. What does an average day look like for you? 

Firstly, what do we do as a company? Ecocert has been an organic certification leader worldwide for over 25 years. It is our mission to build a sustainable world by encouraging people to adopt good environmental and social practices across all sectors and all over the world. Since 2002, Ecocert South Africa, a subsidiary of the Ecocert Group, has assisted stakeholders in implementing and promoting sustainable practices through certification, consulting, and training services. If a company wishes to export organic products, it must be certified against the national organic standard of the country to which it wishes to export. SAOSO (South African Organic Standard) was recently launched, but it is not yet recognized by other countries. Here's where we come in.

The scope of my role is twofold. The role of certification decision officer was added to my auditing/inspecting duties in May 2020.  As soon as I'm  assigned the audit, I contact the client to set up a date. I am responsible for arranging my own transportation, accommodation, meals, and Covid exams.
The key to a successful audit is preparation. Knowing your client, the products they use, where they are located, the inputs they use (fertilizers, pesticides, ingredients, etc.) is important. Upon arriving at the audit site, you will meet with the auditor, view the required documentation (labels, organic certificates, etc.) and then be shown around the facility (factory/farm, chemical storage/raw materials area/final product storage area). Your role is to observe their operation, review that it follows the standard they are being audited against (EU, US, Japan etc), complete the checklist, make note of the number of non-compliances if any, and provide feedback on how they can improve. 
Whenever I'm not on the field completing an audit, I'm in the office reviewing reports submitted by auditors. By verifying that all points in the checklist have been reviewed by the auditor, I ensure, for example, that the labels and recipe forms submitted, and the inputs used, are in compliance with standards. The client is reminded to submit their corrective action for non-conformities issued by the auditor. As soon as everything is in order, I can determine the status of the fields and products that have been applied for certification. As soon as I issue their organic certificate, they are ready to export!

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job? 

I think the biggest misconception people have about organic certified products is that NO pesticides were used in production. While some farmers prefer not to use any input other than seeds or seedlings (even relying on rain to provide water), there are several products on the market that are acceptable when it comes to organic crop production. Likewise for processing, certain additives and other aids are allowed.

In terms of misconceptions about what I do.. Few people are aware of what an organic auditor does - mostly those in or involved in farming. Otherwise, people think I audit farms' finances.
What are the challenges and benefits of this career?

When you work for a company like Ecocert, you are a part of a team that is committed to a sustainable future. It is such a privilege! As a result, my mindset completely changed - I began to consider the long-term effects of certain practices/inputs, how I could be more eco-friendly, as well as being proactive towards making a difference. Additionally, you will have the opportunity to travel, not only within South Africa, but also throughout Southern Africa. The fact that I get to travel a lot is definitely one of the benefits of my job!  In performing this task, you get to visit towns that you would never otherwise be able to see, sometimes in remote areas. Additionally, you gain a sense of boldness and confidence when you travel alone. The experience boosts your confidence and boosts your skills in communication, as well as your ability to deal with a variety of personalities. However, these benefits can also become disadvantages of the job. Traveling can be exhausting, long hours on the road, not being comfortable in your own place, travelling for longer than two weeks at a time, only to return home and leave again within a few days. Fortunately, I don’t have any dependants, but it can become challenging when you have a family back home. Though I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them, being in the client's company for several days can sometimes be exhausting. 

Who has been your greatest support, coach, mentor in your career? How do they help you?

Lauren le Roux is our Certification Manager as well as my biggest supporter and mentor. As a woman, she has walked the same path as I am now, becoming an auditor, becoming a certification decision officer, and now having a staff (of women) looking to her for guidance. Even though she has a busy schedule, she makes time to educate, to share knowledge, and to answer silly questions. She is soft but firm, believes in fairness and is a leader to look up to.
What skills (soft and technical)  do you think a person should have if they want to pursue a position like yours?

The most important soft skill is being flexible and easily adaptable. As an auditor, I've visited remote parts of Botswana and Namibia, where there's different weather, different food, tap water of varying quality, and no WiFi, to name a few. Additionally, you must be detail-oriented, have excellent oral and written communication skills, possess strong interpersonal skills, and have the ability to work independently as well as work with a diverse staff and client base with a variety of strengths and skills.

Technical skills - A degree in agriculture or food science is essential. A thorough knowledge of Microsoft office software, databases, and other information technology is necessary. Additionally, experience in sustainable and organic farming certification schemes would be an asset.

What do you wish you’d known before starting your career?

There is nothing really I wish I had known before starting my career as an organic auditor. Before you can conduct audits, you receive adequate training on the specific organic standards (EU, US, Japan for example). Given that I studied chemistry, food science and not farming, I would've enjoyed classes focused on organic and sustainable agriculture, as well as crop production since I need to discuss rain, cover crops, and manure with farmers today.

What is it like to work as a woman in this field? 

Coming from a Food Science class where 80% of the graduates were women, to starting a job in a purely agricultural field, where most of the employees were men, was quite an interesting experience. Our office, however, is an excellent example of a gender equal environment. I was never made aware of the fact that I am a woman working in a field where men are seen as pioneers in the field. There were five of us who joined Ecocert at the same time (as auditors), three men and two women. After receiving training, I went out to observe another auditor (who was a woman) at work, and then it was my turn to conduct audits on my own. As with any new venture, you feel a bit insecure and inexperienced. Here I am, a young woman in a supposedly man territory. At first, I found it daunting. Then colleagues would always remind me, Yes, the farmers I audit have more experience sowing, spraying and harvesting, but you know the EU, USDA, and JAPAN organic standards by heart, so you have a better understanding of how organic operations operate and check their compliance. As a specialist in YOUR field, you are well-qualified. My bottom line is you have the freedom to choose your career. If agriculture is your passion, go for it. Although women have always been involved in farming, they have been marginalized. The days of only men climbing the ladder in the agriculture field are long gone. Women should be given the opportunity to lead. This should not be a competition, this has nothing to do with feminism, this is about giving someone the opportunity to use their experience, expertise, ability to perform a task, not because of their gender. Note that these barriers women face for advancement are not just limited to agriculture, but apply to many other fields as well. Women and men can perform a given task equally well with the same education and experience. I definitely believe men see the value of women in the workplace. It is now time for us as women to be confident and to believe in ourselves. Get yourself a mentor and reframe your thinking.

There are a lot of opinions out there on closing the gap for females in the Agriculture sector in their entire value chain. What’s your take? 

In essence, food science has a very broad scope, including such areas as food analysis, labelling, food law, product development, and packaging. Food Science is just one small part of the rapidly growing agriculture field - imagine the possibilities! It would never have occurred to me that I would land myself a job as an organic and sustainable agriculture auditor. The four years I spent at university were some of my best. I would encourage students to use every opportunity to their disposal. Attend faculty events to network (a highly valuable skill) and workshops to improve your CV writing skills. Take more than the required period of industry training and investigate different fields to determine which is more appealing to you (quality, product development, etc). Contact the International Office to find out about summer and winter schools and semester exchanges. Together with three of my Food Science classmates, I attended the Kasetsart Summer School in Thailand in September 2019. In addition to the valuable knowledge I gained during this period, I also became more interested in agricultural practices.

What advice would you give to young women who are aspiring to be in your role, or who maybe haven't even considered it as a career?

With consumers becoming more and more aware of what they are eating, production practices involved and maintaining traceability of products there is a growing demand for sustainable and organically produced products. There will be a need for more auditors as the market for certifications grows. To stand out among other candidates, you will benefit from having practical agricultural experience. Consider taking short courses in sustainability, organic agriculture, and farming for the future.

If you are not working, what do you do to relax?

Whenever I can, I like being outdoors and like running, hiking, and camping. I've always enjoyed traveling, and I especially like to see some African countries. The weekends are spent exploring the areas around Stellenbosch, watching sunsets and visiting wine farms. I also enjoy a lekker braai with good friends and family.