Tech alumnus honored by AFI, credits professors for strong foundation
A Tennessee Tech University alumnus has received the American Feed Industry Association 2022 Member of the Year Award. He credits his Tech professors with providing him with a strong foundation for learning and service.
Eric Altom, who received his Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture with an animal science concentration from Tech in 1991, currently works as a technical nutritionist, animal health nutrition, with the Balchem Corporation.
“This is an incredible honor from a wonderful organization. There are so many people from across the industry that donate their time and talents to AFIA,” Altom said. “It is an award I will always cherish. I am very grateful to have been nominated and selected. I look forward to continuing to assist where and when needed."
Altom is a principal nutritionist and industry consultant with over 20 years of experience in companion animal nutrition, including complex formulation design, application of new nutrients in product development and novel ingredient qualifications.
After Altom graduated from Tech he went on to graduate from Clemson University with his Master of Science degree in nutrition in 1994 and his doctorate in animal nutrition at Auburn University.
“Hard work, perseverance, and willingness to help where I can has taken this student from the Upper Cumberland around the world a few times,” Altom said.
Altom originally came to Tech because he wanted to be a veterinarian. He said Tech had a very strong animal science program that would provide both the academic courses and the hands-on live animal experiences. At that time, Tech had two university farms and a very strong track record of student acceptance to vet school.
“Dr. Sam Winfree always said “you cannot pass GO…. If you are going to vet school, you must understand that you are in vet school now… you cannot get into upper-level courses without solid basics.”
Altom worked on Shipley Farm and lived in the old farmhouse for about two years. He credits Cortis Jarvis, Winfree, Bruce Greene and other professors who invested a lot of time in the students and with each asking those critical questions.
“Most of the time we would be in small groups of 2-3-4 students. I remember we were simply sitting on hay bales in coveralls and hooded sweatshirts waiting for an old ewe to lamb in the late evening, early morning with Doc Winfree,” Altom said.
Winfree would ask the students questions like: what do you want to do next? Where do you think you might like to live? What do you like most about this topic or that topic? Have you ever thought about this type of career?, according to Altom. He would then pressure test their responses with, “Are you sure that is what you want to do?”
“The professors never gave us the answers and each student’s response was different and personal. However, slowly they helped us develop our own ‘compass heading’ for our lives and career,” Altom said.
The most critical turning point for Altom was the spring of his junior year. Winfree collected a small group of upper-level students and they developed a research protocol to measure nitrogen uptake in lambs. They submitted their protocol and received funding from the University Student Monies Allocation Committee. These funds were provided by the university to the student government to be appropriately allocated to worthy student projects.
With those funds, they did two critical activities: conducted the research study, and were able to take a one-week trip to visit large animal production farms, feed mills and the Ralston-Purina Research Farm in Missouri, which is now Purina Mills.
Jarvis, again, was critical in their training with this study ensuring proper animal care, according to Altom. During that trip, he met a research nutritionist at Purina willing to provide a behind the scenes tour of the canine and feline nutrition program.
“That was it. I told Doc I didn’t want to go to vet school, I wanted to study animal nutrition. The team ran almost every living person out of Foster Hall for two weeks while we dried lamb feces for digestibility analysis,” Altom said. “Point of fact, the smell was a little strong, but it really wasn’t that bad…. once you get used to it.”
The team completed the animal trial, learned to run numerous statistical models, and defined their results. Then they started writing and re-writing sections for a final report.
“Once Dr. Winfree bled all over the sections, as in marking them up with a red pen, Dr. Green took over and he provided his revisions,” Altom said. “They taught all of us the details for properly conducting a research trial, how not to take constructive criticism, to push yourself to grow and be better, and get the job done right.”
After telling Winfree that he didn’t want to go to vet school, both he and Green had more questions for Altom, and more pressure checking over the weeks and months following that bold statement.
“After Doc was comfortable that I was truly committed, we met for breakfast at Shoney’s with a yellow legal pad and big pot of coffee to lay out a plan. That led me to Clemson University to complete my Master of Science degree in nutrition,” Altom said. “Keep in mind, I was not the only student Dr. Winfree and Dr. Greene put through this exercise. I am eternally grateful.”
The members of that research team all went on to lead success careers after taking that next step according to Altom. One team member decided that graduate school was not for him and took a position with a large agriculture company, two others along with Altom went to graduate school on research assistantships, and the remaining three students entered veterinary medical school at the University of Tennessee.
Altom said Tech prepared him well for future career. He said the work was never easy, but he was well prepared to step up to the challenges.
“You couldn’t hide in their classrooms or laboratories. I stumbled a lot, I failed several times to meet the mark set for us on the first attempt, but I was well trained to pick myself up, dig deeper, and find a way to keep working toward my goals,” Altom said.
Altom said there are three critical things he believes any student must do in order to succeed in their careers. First, one must develop a global view of job, role and industry, Agriculture is a global industry.
“Small changes to a raw material supply in one region can have big impacts in our industry,” Altom said. “With this global perspective and knowledge, you can be a better problem solver for your program and organization.”
Altom said one must be multilingual, a great communicator, and must be able to write well and speak well. One must be able to tailor their message to the audience. By multi-lingual he means one must be able to speak finance, sales, production, operations, and marketing.
“You must be able to speak the language of the different company functions. As a technical asset, I am expected to help translate technical information into bankable contributions for our organization,” Altom said. “I cannot do this effectively if I cannot speak the language.”
Altom said one must raise their hand. He said some of the most successful people he knew simply took a chance and raised their hand to volunteer for a project, new assignment, or new role.
“There is nothing special about me, any student sitting in your animal science classes today can do the same thing if they are simply willing to raise their hand, push themselves out of their comfort zone, and take a risk,” Altom said. “Plenty of industry professionals are ready to assist. Some of the greatest experiences of my career were because I raised my hand, fate favors the bold.”
He suggests one read chapter six of the book, “You Must Dare Greatly. Make Your Bed: Little things that can change your life and maybe the world,” written by Admiral W.H. McRaven, US Navy retired.
“Point of fact, read this entire book, regularly,” Altom said.
The AFIA is a wide range of companies covering every aspect of the animal feed industry. The companies for which Altom had previously worked were AFIA members, but other team members had the role of serving on the various committees.
In 2016, when he joined Balchem Corporation, the company was nominated to have a seat on the AFIA Pet Food Committee and Altom was asked to fill this seat. With the support of his leadership team, he accepted. He served on the committee for a three-year term.
The AFIA named Altom as the recipient of its 2022 Member of the Year Award for his effective support of the AFIA Pet Food Committee and Pet Food Conference. The Member of the Year Award is presented to an AFIA member who exhibits outstanding support in achieving the organization’s goals and objectives throughout the year.
Altom serves on the AFIA Pet Food Conference committee each year to help conduct a one-day industry conference at the International Product and Processing Exposition in Atlanta, GA. He participates in several member interest groups and currently serves on the IFEEDER Research Committee.
“The IFEEDER Research Committee is a great group of technologists charged with reviewing strategic research proposals for potential funding,” Altom said. “Also, on this committee is AFIA Director and fellow Tech graduate, Dr. Paul Davis.”
During the 2022 PFC, Altom put in extra effort facilitating the display of posters for students who could not attend the event in person due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and taking the lead during a busy day of moderating speakers, according to Clay Zimmerman, director of technical services, animal nutrition and health.
“Altom brings energy and dedication to every task he undertakes on behalf of the AFIA and Institute for Feed Education and Research,” Zimmerman said.