Elizabeth Burns-Thompson advocates for biodiesel around the country. Now she's also helping Altoona grow
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
As she meets with legislators and local leaders across the country, Elizabeth Burns-Thompson doesn't forget her days growing up on a family farm.
That includes the sweltering summer days she would spend putting up hay bales.
“If there’s one thing that makes you appreciate an office job in July in Iowa,” she said, “it’s having to remember what it was like to put up small square bales ... when it’s 120 degrees outside."
As manager of corporate affairs for Renewable Energy Group, the largest producer of biodiesel in North America, the 29-year-old Burns-Thompson has turned her farming background into a successful career in agriculture policy and politics. Her responsibilities range from meeting with state officials to guiding 2020 presidential candidates on tours of the company's Iowa refineries. She is one of The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020."
A major accomplishment of her first 10 months in the position came Dec. 3, when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order requiring all new state-owned diesel-powered vehicles to be able to use at least 20% biodiesel.
Burns-Thompson was among those with Renewable Energy Group working with the governor's office on the new policy, which was applauded by those in the renewable fuels industry.
"I'm proud to stand alongside a champion like her, and proud to put that on my list of accomplishments this year," she said.
Aside from her day job, Burns-Thompson is heavily involved in community organizations within the city of Altoona, where she has lived for six years. In November, she was elected to her first term on Altoona's City Council.
“She is a roll-up-her-sleeves and do the hard, dirty work kind of person,” said USDA Iowa Farm Service Agency state executive director Amanda De Jong, who worked with Burns-Thompson during her time at the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “What I think is most notable is she has often done it completely under the radar. To me, that type of approach is the spirit of service we should all try to strive to attain.”
From the family farm to ag politics
Burns-Thompson grew up on a family farm outside Alburnett, a town of about 700 people north of Cedar Rapids. Her parents worked in town on weekdays and would spend their nights and weekends growing corn and soybeans and raising cattle.
Her childhood interest in farming prompted her to join her high school’s FFA chapter and to begin exploring agriculture as a career. But looking around at the other women she knew in agriculture, she initially only saw a couple of pathways.
“What I saw as roles for females in agriculture was a farm wife or an ag teacher,” she said.
Her world opened up when she began attending Iowa State University in fall 2008. Through conversations with faculty such as economics professor Ron Deiter, she settled on a double-major in agricultural business and international ag, with a minor in agronomy.
She graduated in 2011.
"We expected great things out of her," Deiter said. "She certainly has delivered on that."
Burns-Thompson has since charted a nontraditional career path for an ag grad, Deiter said. An internship in Washington, D.C., sparked her interest in the policy side of agriculture. Conversations with people like De Jong, whom she initially met on Capitol Hill, helped her decide to pursue a law degree.
Burns-Thompson worked with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation as a government relations law clerk while pursuing her law degree and graduated with a Juris Doctorate from Drake University Law School in 2014.
Her career has since included positions with the National Agricultural Law Center and Iowa Corn Growers Association, where she most recently worked as regulatory affairs counsel.
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An advocate for renewable fuels
Burns-Thompson joined the Ames-based Renewable Energy Group in February 2019. She is now part of a team of three people who travel the country to discuss policy with state and local leaders.
Formed out of West Central Cooperative in Iowa, Renewable Energy Group operates 13 biorefineries in the United States and Europe. Its Iowa refineries include locations in Mason City, Newton and Ralston. The company manufactured 502 million gallons of fuel in 2018.
Ethanol and biodiesel plants have faced challenges across the state and country this year. Industry leaders blame waivers made by the Trump administration that have let oil refineries off the hook for blending renewable fuel like biodiesel and ethanol into the nation's fuel supply.
Burns-Thompson said the national environment looms in her lobbying role at the state and local level.
"It puts an extra level of importance on providing some certainties," she said. "Shoring up what we do have, in terms of whether it’s an incentive, a requirement, a compliance — any of that on the state level, which is the crux of what I do."
Burns-Thompson was among those with Renewable Energy Group working to provide subject expertise to the governor's office for Reynolds' executive order on Dec. 3.
Her advocacy work has also included building connections with 2020 presidential candidates and setting up tours of Iowa biorefineries. So far, Renewable Energy Group has welcomed Sen. Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney and Rep. Seth Moulton — who dropped out of the race in August — on tours.
AgGrad, an ag career association, named her one of its "30 under 30" in 2019.
Altoona's newest City Council member
Burns-Thompson moved to Altoona in her final year of law school. Two years later, she bought a home there.
She said she chose the growing suburb because it's a happy medium between proximity to the interstate and the rest of the Des Moines metro and a small-town feel that makes her inner "farm kid" feel at home.
Since arriving in Altoona, Burns-Thompson has put herself to work in the community, where she has been involved with the Altoona Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals, and the Altoona 150th celebration planning committee.
"I grew up in a small town, and I was raised in a fashion that everyone gives back — in part because you kind of have to," she said. "You didn't just live somewhere, you were a part of somewhere if you lived there."
Residents began pushing her to consider a run for City Council. With Councilman Scott Leighter not seeking reelection, she ran unopposed alongside incumbent Vernon Willey II for the two seats up for election.
Altoona Chamber of Commerce executive director Melissa Horton, who has worked with Burns-Thompson on chamber events over the past few years, said she was among those encouraging her to run.
“Elizabeth is present and intentional — important traits for anyone in a leadership role,” Horton said in an email.
Burns-Thompson's election in Altoona and Bridget Carberry Montgomery's election to the Urbandale City Council in November mean that every city in the Des Moines metro now has at least one woman in an elected position. Burns-Thompson will also be the Altoona City Council's youngest member.
Beyond her demographics, she believes she brings a variety of perspectives and values to the council, including as someone who recently moved to the community. Her goal is to continue watching Altoona grow.
"I think that listening and learning is my biggest priority," she said. "We have some really unique things in Altoona, and I look forward to being able to share some of those unique stories."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Elizabeth Burns-Thompson
- BORN: Cedar Rapids, 1990
- RESIDENCE: Altoona
- EDUCATION: Drake University Law School, 2014, Juris Doctorate. Iowa State University, 2011, bachelor's degrees in agricultural business and international agriculture with a minor in agronomy
- OCCUPATION: Manager of corporate affairs, Renewable Energy Group
- CLAIMS TO FAME: Manager of corporate affairs for North America's largest biodiesel producer; elected to Altoona City Council in November 2019; named one of AgGrad's 30 under 30 in 2019
- POSITIONS OF NOTE: Serving her first term on the Altoona City Council, starting in January 2020
- FAMILY: Mother, Margaret Burns; father, Terry Thompson; sister, Katelyn Burns-Thompson
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