First Woman Purdue Agronomy Professor Digs into Her Job

By Sayde Uerkwitz

When Dr. Eileen Kladivko was young growing up in suburban New Jersey, her dream job did not consist of soil, worms, or crops; but she thought teaching or becoming a scientist would suit. She knew at a young age she was talented in math and science and that she loved the outdoors. Her parents saw the potential to put her two loves together.

“When I was young I never thought I would be a professor in agronomy,” Kladivko said. “I did not grow up on a farm or know a lot about agriculture. I knew I liked being outside and science was fun for me.  I grew up during the modern environmental movement. I planned to ‘save the earth environmentally.’ My parents helped set me on the course that I started many years ago.”
Kladivko started her undergraduate career at Purdue University in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science (NRES) program.

“Purdue began an interdisciplinary program that studied environmental science and it happened to be in the College of Agriculture,” Kladivko said. “I started to look into electives and saw a soil science course. I thought to myself ‘how can someone study soil for a whole semester’? The course looked interesting, so I took it.”

After Kladivko took AGRY 255 and fell in love with soil science, she decided to continue her academic career past her bachelor’s degree.
“At the time, most undergraduate students did not know about graduate school,” Kladivko said. “I was encouraged by my professors to continue my education.  During that time sewage sludge on agricultural land was a popular topic. Part of my master’s work was at the Purdue Research Farms. I worked with a technician who was a retired farmer and he taught me a great deal about agriculture.”

After completing her master’s degree, traveling to Germany on a scholarship, and finishing her Ph.D. in Soil Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kladivko accepted a position as a professor in the Agronomy Department at Purdue University. She started her position in January 1982.
 “I was the first female faculty member in the department, but I always felt respected, encouraged, and supported,” Kladivko said. “There were not many female professors during this time. To be a faculty member in the Agronomy Department at Purdue you needed to be open-minded, competent, and professional– those were the criteria, not if you were male or female. When I was searching for a job, I hoped one would be open at Purdue because the Agronomy Department is a very collegial department and I wanted to be part of that. There were some awkward times, of course. During professional meetings outside of the university I would be the only woman in a large group of men, but I never felt out of place.”

Dr. William McFee was a colleague of Kladivko’s and former Department Head of Agronomy.  He said Kladivko fit right into the department.
“At the time there were not a lot of women with a degree in agronomy, especially not at Eileen’s level,” McFee said. “A soil class might have 70-80 students with only 1-2 being female. She was hired to teach soil physics. Her work broadened the department’s horizon in the area of soils by exploring different areas such as earthworms and soil drainage. Although she did not have an extension appointment she pursued those opportunities. Due to the great work she had done and continues to do, she has paved the way for other Purdue Agronomy female faculty members.”
Kladivko’s position has changed from the day she taught her first class. 

“The largest change in my position is I now have an extension appointment,” Kladivko said. “When I was hired, I had a teaching and research appointment.  The overall goal of my research is to improve environmental quality, soil health ,and crop production for long-term sustainability. Some of the topics I used to research separately are now  coming together. Because of this, a lot of my research is tied into my extension work.”
Although many changes have happened during her 30 years at Purdue, her drive to continue to learn and improve hasn’t.

“Taking care of the soil and trying to improve its ability to grow food and protect the environment over the long term is what I’m involved in every day,” Kladivko said. “There are problems that need answers. The answers are not found over a short period of time. We won’t see dramatic changes in the soil right away, either positive or negative. It takes a long time to make changes, but it does not mean the changes are not important.”
Dr. Laura Bowling, professor of agronomy, said Kladivko reached out to her in a very real way soon after she arrived at Purdue.  

“In my opinion Eileen exemplifies the heart and soul of the agronomy department, not only because she has been around long enough to know much of the history of the department, but because of her loyalty and dedication. Eileen demonstrates the idea of being a good departmental citizen, simply by doing things that benefit the department as a whole. Despite the fact that she was surprised to discover that the search committee hired an engineer while she was away on sabbatical, she made a point of inviting me on field trips to show me around and get me attuned to the real Indiana. I have an appreciation for the first sign of corn growing in the spring that I never would have had if I hadn’t listened to Eileen’s glowing description.  Ten years later, I am working on issues of agricultural drainage because Eileen invited me along to a proposal meeting in my first months here.”

One of Kladivko’s proudest moments in her career is helping establish the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC)​. The MCCC seeks to significantly increase the amount of continuous living cover on the Upper Midwestern agricultural landscape.

Kladivko said in 2005 five professors were at a meeting and  started discussing the need to increase the awareness about cover crops.

“In 2006 the MCCC was founded. We formed the group with input from Ontario and five states including Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota,” she said.

Dr. Joe Anderson, agronomy department head, said because of Kladivko’s research and leadership in cover crops the department has become more diverse.  “Cover crop usage in the state has greatly increased, contributing to better soil health and utilization of nitrogen. When faculty seize an opportunity like this, the department programs grow and become much more attractive to prospective students.”

Kladivko can look back on her career and think of many proud moments. It is the future she looks forward to.

“I have had many great moments and proud points in my career,” Kladivko said. “I am excited and optimistic about what the future has to bring. Agronomy is a very important and critical part of the agriculture industry. In this area there are many professionals answering questions and solving problems to global issues. I’d encourage young people to consider the rewarding career opportunities in Agronomy.”