Collette Kaster never met a challenge she didn’t like – or at least never came across a challenge she wouldn’t take on.
When she was a child, she raised and showed horses and never dodged the challenges her grandfather threw her way when he asked her to help with the chores of caring for the cattle and hogs on his century farm in northwest Iowa.
In college, she didn’t blink when her meat science professor at South Dakota State University suggested she try meat judging. Taking that on led her to her next challenge – her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Studying at UNL under Roger Mandigo, PhD, provided Kaster with a new set of challenges, ultimately leading to her first job in the meat industry with Pig Improvement Co. (PIC).
From that point on, there was one challenge after another. Some were presented to her as she worked at PIC and later in her career while working at Premium Standard Farms, Farmland Foods and Smithfield Foods Inc. Kaster pursued other new challenging opportunities on her own, always willing to learn more and become more accomplished in her career.
“Some people think if they do a good job people will just notice it,” Kaster said. “But I think you need to sell yourself. You have to make people aware of the impact that you’re having, so you can get those additional responsibilities.
“I’ve always told people, ‘Take your seat at the table. Take your part in the discussion. If you have something meaningful to contribute, speak up and say it.’”
It was this attitude that landed Kaster in her role as executive director of the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) in 2016, and in 2019, assuming the role of chief executive officer at the American Meat Science Association (AMSA).
Instead of giving up one job to pursue the other, Kaster decided to try to do them both – maintaining responsibilities with PAACO for 20% of the time and taking on the tasks of CEO for AMSA for 80% of the time.
A multi-tasker at heart, the challenge of working for two organizations simultaneously didn’t scare Kaster, but she wasn’t sure the rest of the parties involved would see it that way.
“I didn’t want to leave PAACO – but at first I wasn’t sure if I could do both,” Kaster said. “Then I thought about my time at Smithfield when I managed two separate functional areas – quality assurance and hog procurement – and I felt like if I could have managed those separate areas at a large company like Smithfield, then it was conceivable to manage two relatively small associations. So, I put together a pitch around that. In the end, everyone viewed it as something with the potential to be pretty unique. We all agreed we would give it a try.
“So far, I think it’s working.”
Introduction to industry
Although her first love as a child was horses, equine degrees weren’t very common when Kaster was selecting a major, so instead she pursued an animal science degree at South Dakota State University.
“That was probably a good thing because I’d probably be broke and crippled if I had worked in the horse industry,” she said.
Kaster’s first meat science class, taught by Bill Costello, piqued her interest in the world of meat, and her involvement in meat judging at his suggestion exposed her to the industry that would ultimately become a lifelong career.
“I started spending every Friday night at the John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls and every Saturday morning at the IBP plant in Laverne, Minn.,” she said. “With meat judging you get to go all around the industry. You get to travel to a number of different contests and compete and learn all the different cuts of meat. After that, I never looked back.
“I was always interested in meat – in the meat industry. I love the history of it. I love the complexity of it, the challenges. It became my thing.”
I always tell students that I mentor, ‘you don’t have to know everything, but you should be one of the hardest workers — Collette Kaster
Following her undergrad career at South Dakota State, Kaster went directly to UNL to pursue her master’s degree in animal science. It was there that she worked with Mandigo.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do specifically in grad school,” she said. “I went down there (to UNL) to coach the judging team and I really didn’t know much about the academic side. When I visited, I sort of picked a name out of a hat and happened to choose Dr. Mandigo to work in the area of processed meats. I didn’t realize at the time he was world renowned as a food scientist, especially in the processed meat industry. That was a great connection to have. He did such a great job of introducing his students to the meat industry.”
After receiving her master’s, it was time to settle on a job.
“I always thought I would end up working in beef,” she said. “Instead I ended up seeing a job ad for PIC. They were looking to hire a meat scientist for the first time in their history.”
In 1992, Kaster moved to Spring Green, Wis., to start her meat industry career as a meat scientist for PIC.
“It couldn’t have been any better of a dream first job,” she said. “It was an international company. I got to go overseas for the first time. I interacted with producers, with packers. It was tremendous exposure to the global pork industry.”
Kaster’s time at PIC not only introduced her to the pork industry but also to her husband Dennis.
“Friends of ours say it was ‘a match made in hog heaven,’” she said.
After marrying in Wisconsin, the two moved to Trenton, Mo., in 1994, to work for the newly formed Premium Standard Farms in Milan, Mo. Kaster went to work at the plant first as director of technical services and later as vice president of technical services. Her husband also worked at the plant, on the live side of the operation.
“One of the things during my whole career is that I’ve always worked on the interface of live and fresh,” she said. “At PIC, I would follow the pigs through the process trying to find out how the genetics affected them. How did what we fed them, their genotype, affect them? How did everything affect what was happening at the plant – how did it affect quality or cutability or food safety?”
Kaster pursued many of those same questions during her time with Premium Standard Farms. It was then that her career started to evolve more into the areas of food safety, quality assurance and product development in various technical services roles.
“I always tell students that I mentor, ‘you don’t have to know everything, but you should be one of the hardest workers,” she said. “You should be willing to be there at 4 in the morning and stay until 8 at night, even if you’re a manager with a master’s degree. I tell them to always ask for more to do at your job.
“One of the things I like to do is learn a lot about a lot of things. I’m a big nerd about learning things. For me, learning the next thing in a job is fascinating.”
The quest for learning and taking on new challenges kept her career evolving after Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods bought Premium Standard Farms in 2007. Following that acquisition, some elements of the business went to Farmland Foods and others stayed with Smithfield. Kaster worked as vice president of quality assurance and technical services for Farmland from 2007 to 2012 and then as senior vice president of hog procurement and quality assurance for Smithfield from 2012 to 2016.
She spent 24 years of her career working in meat plants at PIC, Premium Standard Farms, Farmland and Smithfield.
“I have been fortunate in my career to have frequently gone into roles where there was no definition for the role, where no one had been in the role before me,” she said. “That was true when I went to Premium Standard Farms. Later in my years with Smithfield, I went more into managing. I headed our QA group and our hog procurement group, but animal handling and welfare was always an element of everything I did my entire career.”
When she took the procurement job in 2012, she moved her family to a small cow-calf farm (about 20 head) in Kearney, Mo.
The small farm provides her family of four – including daughters Sam (19) and Sophie (16) – the opportunity to enjoy some wide-open spaces, raise some animals (including two horses) and stay in touch with their farming roots.
“We’re always going to live in the country and if cows can pay for our improvements and our property taxes, then good,” she said.
Even though animal welfare and handling were never specifically part of Kaster’s job titles, they were never far from her focus throughout her in-plant career.
“I’m trained as a meat scientist and I’ve worked in the pork industry for almost 30 years,” Kaster said. “Early in my career, when I worked at PIC, the topic of animal welfare and animal handling was starting to be more widely discussed. First, because of its influence on pork quality. Then more attention was starting to get paid to regulations. Then we developed audits and programs. And now it’s snowballed into a bigger and bigger thing.”
PAACO was created in 2004 to “create standardization and accreditation around animal welfare auditing.” The organization, started by Mike Simpson, doesn’t employ auditors, rather it provides certification for the auditors who work in meat, poultry, swine, dairy and beef feedlot operations.
In 2016, Simpson decided to retire from PAACO, which opened a new door and challenge for Kaster to consider. She had helped host a number of PAACO trainings at Smithfield through the years which gave her a good understanding of PAACO’s mission, but still, leaving the pork industry, which she had worked in for almost 25 years, was a leap of faith.
“When the role came open, I thought these things don’t come open very often,” Kaster said. “I took a look at the job and knew it was something I could do, and I would enjoy.
“I took a big leap going from industry into not-for-profit and association management. But the main reason I did it was because I knew opportunities like that don’t come up that often. And where I was in the stage of my career, I knew it was the best time to take on something new. I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to do this, now is the time.’
“I’m an extrovert, I’m a networking person, I love meeting people – that was not the problem. The problem was leaving a company that I liked and a job that I loved. Leaving a job of working with huge teams in a really big role to take on a tiny role with zero support.
I just knew in my heart if I didn’t try this, I would regret it. It was the perfect time in my life and my career to give it a try. — Collette Kaster
“The first day I walked in this office I thought, ‘I have to set up my own computer and phone and buy my own printer. I have to be IT, HR and accounting.’ I had to learn all of those roles. I like learning new things, so that was fine. But in the first couple of months I did ask myself, ‘What have I done?’”
Despite the challenges that the new not-for-profit association role presented, Kaster has never regretted her decision to make the leap out of pork production and into animal handling auditing. She took a piece of her own advice that she offers people she mentors – she got out of her “silo.”
At the beginning of 2019, when AMSA was searching for its new CEO, Kaster jumped out of her silo once again and pursued her add-on career.
“When you think about having the combination of having the business background, the association management background, the technical background and industry contacts from working in the industry for so many years, I thought I could bring a pretty unique combination to the organization,” she said.
She interviewed with the AMSA board in March 2019 and was given a one-year trial of taking on the role of AMSA CEO while maintaining her executive director position with PAACO.
“One of my favorite things to do is to seek synergy,” she said. “So, this combination of working for both PAACO and AMSA works really well because that synergy already exists between the two organizations. People are recognizing that we as an industry are stronger when we have a unified voice or similar goals.”
Working to set and achieve these goals Kaster works side by side with Deidrea Mabry, chief operating officer at AMSA, and at PAACO, Dakota Thomas, training coordinator, and Marjorie Jones, administrative assistant.
“What I really love doing is managing teams of people,” she said. “Having successful organizations involves having a really good leadership team within those groups. Both of these groups have great teams.”
So far, Kaster thinks the one-year trial of the dual career is going well. She manages her 80/20 time split out of an office in Kearney and travels to meetings, trainings and industry events around the country representing both organizations. She continues to rise to new challenges and has no regrets.
“What I have always told people who have asked me about what I did is tell them you have to ask yourself, ‘Would I be more disappointed if I didn’t do it, or if I stayed put?’” she said. “I just knew in my heart if I didn’t try this, I would regret it. It was the perfect time in my life and my career to give it a try.”