Drawing from past and present, new Research Stations director leads into the future

by | Mar 10, 2021

It’s not uncommon for a woman who grew up helping on the farm to embrace the term “farm girl,” but what do you call a woman who grew up on one of North Carolina’s agriculture research stations where farming meets academic research?

Teresa Lambert

In one case, you could call that woman the division director. Teresa Lambert is now the director of the Research Stations Division in the N.C. Department of Agriculture. She may also embrace the “farm girl” term, but she’s done a lot since growing up at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Ashe County.

“My dad was actually the burley tobacco supervisor, and at the time, supervisors were required to live on the stations,” Lambert explained.

Her family eventually moved about a mile down the road from the station, and in the late 1990’s, she became the first woman to work at the Upper Mountain Research Station outside the office. She’s quick to point out there are several women working on research stations these days.

“We have some rock star females that work at research stations,” Lambert said before launching into a story about some passionate and knowledgeable women she worked with when she was superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.

She’s also quick to note that she’s not the first woman to be the Research Stations Division director either. She’s currently one of nine women who are directors of divisions in the N.C. Department of Agriculture. (Watch this blog for a separate post about those women this month.)

Commissioner Steve Troxler stands in a field with Teresa Lambert in the summer of 2020.

Lambert does recognize there are more men in agriculture and on the research stations though. She’s never seen that be an issue. Perhaps that’s because she’s always worked hard and earned respect. You can tell by talking to her that Lambert may be modest in some ways, but she also conveys the confidence of someone who knows her worth. You can tell she’s a hard worker. She’s proven it over the years as well. She’s found that in agriculture nobody cares if you’re a man or a woman as long as you work hard.

“It does my heart good that regardless of what you read out there in the world, people don’t see gender in agriculture because if you can do the job that’s what matters,” Lambert said. “Men and women work together every day on research stations, and nobody thinks a thing about it. It’s cool.”

Lambert said she acknowledges there are differences in men and women – innate strength and communication styles, for example. However, going back to working hard and earning respect, those differences don’t matter much.

“I’ve always thought I can do anything the guys can do. They may be able to do it a little faster, but I can do it just as well,” Lambert said. “If you have mutual respect for folks everything works itself out.”

That sure does sound a lot like a woman who grew up in agriculture – willing to work hard and prove herself by letting the hard work speak for itself. Her grit is something Lambert said she brought up as she was interviewing for the promotion to division director.

“I told him he could have picked a lot of people that are smarter than me, but no one who would work harder. What I lack in that, I make up in determination,” Lambert said.

It seems her modesty may have shown through a bit too. Lambert has plenty of smarts and experience to lead the Research Stations Division.

Looking back
When Lambert graduated from high school, her dad gave her two acres of tobacco to manage during her summers. She’d earned enough scholarship money to pay for her freshman year, and then she tended to those two acres of tobacco well enough in the following years that they paid for the rest of her college. The month after she graduated from N.C. State with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, she started working as a livestock agent at the Cooperative Extension office in Forsyth County. After three years, she took a job as the livestock supervisor at the Upper Mountain Research Station where her dad was still the burley tobacco supervisor. It was around then that she bought land for a house adjacent to her parents.

“[Before I graduated college] I’d worked for several years at Upper Mountain on a temporary seasonal basis and then was able to return. That’s as cool as it gets – to work a mile from my house,” Lambert said, looking back on that time.

“It was wonderful getting to work back at Upper Mountain. I got to work with Joe Hampton. He’s the kind of guy you never forget, and you worked 150 percent for him because he trusted you to do a good job. I learned so much from him about how to be a manager. I owe of lot of where I am today to him. My dad had given a great foundation, and Joe really helped me build on that.”

After her son was born in 2006, Lambert moved into the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division and then back into Cooperative Extension, earning her master’s degree in poultry science along the way. In 2016, she moved back into working for the Department of Agriculture as the poultry unit manager at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury. By then, her mentor Joe Hampton was the supervisor of the station. When he retired the following year, Lambert was promoted to superintendent until she was promoted once again to Research Stations director in January, overseeing all 18 stations in the state.

Looking forward
“I think research stations are as important now as they have ever been,” Lambert said. “We’re not making any more farmable land or more water. If we’re going to feed the growing population, we’re only going to be able to do it with research.”

Lambert thinks about studies that have predicted that the world population will outstrip current food production in just 29 years. She believes that agriculture has to make huge incremental increases in food output to meet that demand. Again, research is the way to make that possible she said.

“My grandmother lived to be more than 100 years old. I think about the fact that when she was growing up they used almanacs and mules, and by the time she died we were using G.P.S. and auto-steer tractors,” Lambert said. “Research is what got us there in just one lifetime!”