CRFS celebrates Rich Pirog's career

Gratitude and best wishes to Rich Pirog, former director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, as he transitions out of his role at MSU.

Portrait of Rich Pirog.

After 11 years of influential leadership, Rich Pirog, director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS), has transitioned out of his role at Michigan State University as of April 29, 2022. To celebrate his work and leadership, we talked with Rich about the highlights of his career and what he’s looking forward to next.

Rich’s career in food systems began when he worked as an agribusiness researcher in the private sector and moved on to become an extension specialist at the University of Missouri. Following those roles, he joined Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in 1990. He has always been connected to food through his father and grandfather, who were small-scale dairy farmers in New Jersey, and his wife, Lori, who is a nutritionist.

However, Rich didn’t start out in food systems. He launched his career after receiving his master’s degree in agricultural meteorology and bachelor’s degree in earth science. Rich comically remarked that he realized he wasn’t fit for forecasting because the first overnight weather forecast he gave for the college newspaper was “partly sunny.”

Although it didn’t work out, we couldn’t be more grateful that Rich's forecasting mistake eventually lead him into a vibrant and productive food systems career.

Rich’s characteristic sense of humor and earnestness come through in all of his work, including in the conversation we had with him during this interview. Read on to learn about lessons from his work, his proudest achievements, and the people he’s been grateful to work with in his 40-year career.

Humor is an essential life skill

"My observation is that you can't have a meeting with Rich in it without two things. You gotta have a pun, otherwise there was no meeting. And then two, it's going to be a rich conversation, and that pun is intended."
- Renee Wallace, Doers Edge LLC and FoodPLUS Detroit

To know Rich is to know his love of puns. The positivity and humor that Rich brings to his work are equally matched by how serious he is about advancing equitable food systems.

“I noticed very early on that Rich has got the personality trait of a lot of analytical engineering folks, and that is that when he's talking about work, he's focused and he's very intense,” says Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “He's full of energy and he's not joking when he's in that mode. But when he’s joking, he's in that mode, and it's a switch he turns on and off. You just have to figure out, is this guy joking right now or is this guy serious right now?”

For 10 years during his tenure at the Leopold Center, Rich did what he describes as “a hybrid of stand-up comedy and motivational speaking.” Although he has left comedy gigs behind, humor continues to be one of the most important parts of his life.

Since the start of the pandemic, Rich has started each week by sending a pun to CRFS staff. He felt it was important to create a sense of cheer among the staff as we’ve been working in different spaces.

“If it starts everyone’s week with a smile, I’ve accomplished something,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest gifts to laugh with each other.”

Humor is one way that Rich expresses his creativity, and he notes there is research that documents that people are more creative after humor than serious conversation.

“Humor is more than a defense mechanism. It’s a survival skill for me. It’s a way I keep a positive attitude,” he says.

Rich is very appreciative of his wife Lori for listening to his frequent puns – many of which elicit a groan rather than a laugh – for the past 40 years.

Optimistic for the future of food systems

Rich’s visionary leadership has fostered an environment for future food systems leaders to succeed. One of his proudest accomplishments is serving as lead author to the 2011 Iowa Local Food and Farm Plan, which lays a framework for local food systems growth at the state and local level.

“The Iowa Food and Farm Plan actually got state funding at $75,000 a year for at least 10 years, which was amazing, because it was very bipartisan in both the approach and what we did,” Rich says.

Another one of Rich’s lasting contributions is his emphasis on the importance of what he calls “collaboration infrastructure.” When working at the Leopold Center, it dawned on Rich that his focus should be on network building. He found that the important work supported through grant-funded projects often ends when the grant ends, and he realized how unsustainable that model is. During his time at CRFS, building networks and collaborating among partners has allowed grant money to be far more effective because the networks outlive the grant period and span across funding sources. This lesson is something many colleagues have adopted in their work.

During his time in Missouri and Iowa, the narrative around food systems that he was exposed to was primarily a white-oriented narrative. After coming to Michigan, Rich fully recognized that this narrative was only part of the story of food systems in the U.S.

“What’s exciting now is that more food system practitioners have moved towards a more comprehensive narrative,” he says. “It includes the role that African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous leaders have played in providing nutrition and food security in their communities, and across this country over the centuries.”

Rich feels optimistic because the narratives are changing and the people getting into food systems work have a much broader and deeper understanding of structural inequities in the food system.

The same faith and hope Rich has in current and future food systems leaders is the same optimism that was placed on him by some of the most influential people in his career. Rich names three people who inspire him:

  • Dick Thompson, founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa. In reflecting on the best advice he’s received, Rich recalls the words Dick once shared with him: “We’ve got to learn how to get along, but don’t go along.” Dick modelled how to work with all kinds of people and showed Rich that respect in the face of disagreement goes a long way for relationship building.
  • Kamyar Enshayan, the director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at University of Northern Iowa. Kamyar immigrated to the United States from Iran and met Rich soon after coming to Iowa. Since then, Kamyar has fostered a vibrant environment for local food in Iowa. Rich says, “He’s a great example of what it means to be an engaged world citizen. He’s my hero.”
  • Mike Hamm, founding director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Rich is grateful that Mike didn’t give up on bringing Rich to Michigan. After an interview in 2007 and an offer to join what was then the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Agriculture, Rich turned the offer down. Four years later, Mike reached out to him again and successfully brought him on board to help transition the C.S. Mott Group to the Center for Regional Food Systems. Mike was very supportive of Rich stepping into the role of director at CRFS in 2016.

The many farmers and non-profit food system leaders Rich has met in Iowa and Michigan are a huge source of inspiration for him. The staff at CRFS who will carry his legacy forward also inspire Rich’s optimism in the future of food.

Supporting people to be better human beings

“In and through community lies the salvation of the world.”
- M. Scott Peck in The Different Drum

When we asked Rich about his most memorable achievements, he shared, “The most important thing to me has been my investment in the development of the staff at the center. The most important asset the center has is its people and the partnerships they have developed. We have developed a really great team at CRFS.”

Looking back at his 40 year career, he reflects that emotional intelligence is the most essential skill he nurtured in his work, and is what he looks for when hiring staff. Building networks and working alongside so many people requires the ability to listen for understanding and to relate to how people are feeling.

Through Rich’s work in racial equity in the food system, he has observed that there are many fear-based structures and systems in place. He reflects, “Fear can foster hatred and resentment, which has exacerbated systemic issues like racism and misogyny. There’s a need for respect and support for all human beings and we have to replace fear with love.”

“To survive as a species, we have to find meaningful ways to be in community with each other,” says Rich. “I carry that idea with me when I think about how to address food systems issues. Food is an important way that people celebrate being in community with each other.”

Rich has touched the lives of his many colleagues and friends. Here’s what they have to say about his impact:

“I met Rich in 1994, and for the last 30 years he has enriched my life and my work. It was his initiative that cultivated and nurtured the local/regional food leadership in Iowa. Everything I’ve done in my work has been shaped by our friendship, by our professional relationship, and by all of the conversations and work that we’ve done together.”
- Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Education, University of Northern Iowa

“A good center is a composite of really good people who you give the freedom to do their best work, and that's what Rich has done, and he's done it really well.”
- Mike Hamm, founding director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems

“Rich has provided clear strategic vision for our center here at MSU and along with strengthening our programming, he has provided effective leadership and mentorship to a CRFS team that has doubled in size since he joined 11 years ago.”
- Jude Barry, interim director of MSU Center for Regional Food Systems

Best wishes and gratitude

What is Rich looking forward to in his next chapter? After 40 year hiatus, he plans on devoting time to playing music again, starting with purchasing a new guitar and taking lessons. In addition to expressing his artistic talents, he hopes to travel, research his ancestry, and do some food systems consulting.

In the short term, he’s planning on not taking on too many offers and is looking forward to going more than a few days at a time without looking at email!

All of us at CRFS express our deep gratitude to Rich for his leadership and collegiality over the years, and wish him all the best as he moves on from MSU.

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