Published Jan 25, 2024

Lifelong Learning

By Emma Liddle

Rachel PerryWhen Rachel Perry was introduced to PFI, she quickly connected with its network and farmer-led approach.

For lifetime member Rachel Perry, farming runs deep. She grew up in Waupun, Wisconsin, immersed in her parents’ farm operation of vegetable and commodity crops. She also spent time helping out on the dairy operation of her mother’s extended family in Wisconsin Dells. “These roots, and a wonderful agriculture teacher in high school, Tari Costello, helped grow my love for agriculture,” Rachel says.

She took this passion to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied agronomy, global health and environmental science. After earning her bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2017, Rachel sought out work in research. She started at Seminis Vegetables, a vegetable seed grower and developer that’s now a subsidiary of Bayer. After that, she worked at her alma mater in their field corn breeding program.

Rachel was eager to learn more about extension outreach and vegetable production. In 2019, she met Ajay Nair, an associate professor and extension specialist who oversees Iowa State University’s Sustainable Vegetable Production Lab, and found exactly what she was looking for. She started her master’s program in horticulture and sustainable agriculture in 2020, focusing on Iowa lettuce production systems through Ajay’s lab. It was through that program, and Ajay, that Rachel learned about Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Ajay has been a dedicated advocate for PFI and partner on vegetable-related research trials, as well as a regular speaker at PFI events. Through him, Rachel quickly connected with PFI farmers and staff and began participating in events. She was one of the recipients of a gift access-level membership in late 2021, which put her on the mailing list for PFI’s printed publications, including the magazine and conference brochure.

When the 2022 conference was announced, Rachel’s colleagues asked if she would be willing to volunteer. “PFI’s annual conference is one of my favorite PFI events, so it was easy to say yes,” Rachel says. On the Saturday of the event, Rachel worked all day as a room host. This role is critical for making sessions run smoothly, with duties that include helping speakers set up their presentations, taking an attendance count for each session and helping manage questions at the end.

During her volunteer shifts, she got to sit in on farmer-led sessions related to her research. “I enjoyed hearing vegetable farmers share about management practices that worked at their farms,” she says, adding that she also enjoyed visiting with others between sessions. “The conference is a great way to network with farmers, companies, researchers and extension agents who hold similar values.”

New Horizons

As Rachel progressed in her graduate program, she continued to involve herself in Practical Farmers of Iowa, thanks in part to the strong relationship between PFI and the ISU’s sustainable agriculture program. In January 2023, she finished her master’s program. “My sustainable agriculture classes challenged me to rethink agriculture and consider other ways to build resilient farms,” she says. After graduating, Rachel moved to Illinois to work for Roquette, a company that manufactures plant-based ingredients. She works in the plant care area, and her day-to-day work involves answering customer questions and managing partnerships with outside research companies.

Rachel knew early on that she wanted to become a lifetime member of PFI. In May 2023, once she assumed her current position, she made it official. “PFI does an excellent job of supporting farmers who are interested in research and agriculture practices that are not considered mainstream. They also see value in investing in the next generation of farmers through farm transition and beginning farmer programs,” she says. “I figured it’s time to give back!”

Now that Rachel no longer lives in Iowa, most of her interaction is through membership materials and online resources. “Luckily, there are still webinars and online events I can attend to feel part of the community,” she says. Excited as she is for PFI events in Illinois, Rachel will gladly return to Iowa for the annual conference. Until then, she will continue to spread the word.

“I truly believe in the PFI mission and wanted to support an organization that has and continues to teach and support me in my career and personal endeavors.”