On the farm: Folkerts works to plant sustainable, equitable food systems

Rachel Folkerts, AB 2012, realized her dream of serving in the Peace Corps immediately after graduating from WashU. As a sustainable agriculture extension agent in rural Senegal, Folkerts personally witnessed global issues she had studied, such as poverty and agricultural land-use practices. The new perspective and experience she gained in West Africa eventually led her to her current role, Farm Programs Director at Plant It Forward, a Houston-based non-profit that empowers refugees to develop sustainable farms.

Folkerts at Plant It Forward

Folkerts’ two years in the Peace Corps helped her envision future career paths by providing both practical skills and an alternative worldview. “I learned a new language, experienced a new culture, received practical job training, and had the opportunity to plan, organize, and implement a wide array of projects, including organizing girls’ camps, starting orchards, and participating in national reforesting efforts,” Folkerts said. “Looking back, the most important and profound part of my service were the relationships I formed with my host community. Those relationships, and the experience of living in a small, tight-knit community, profoundly changed the way I move through the world.”

After returning from Senegal, Folkerts explored several career options. During a brief stint doing development and grant writing for a non-profit organization focused on pollution remediation projects, she realized she wanted to be closer to the projects and people impacted by her efforts. Working for an international NGO – no matter how worthy the mission – didn’t fit the bill. Next, she returned to St. Louis, joining WashU’s Environmental Studies program and her undergraduate advisor, David Fike, to work on interdisciplinary collaboration and community engagement. This experience almost lured her back to academia, but ultimately she knew she could make a bigger difference in the field.

“At Plant It Forward, my primary job function is to provide technical assistance to a network of 13 growers who arrived to Houston as refugees from several African countries,” Folkerts explained. Her duties range from troubleshooting production challenges to mentoring farmers through developing their small businesses. She also plans and implements workshops and demonstrations on anything the farmers need to know to start and operate a successful farm. 

“Through this work, I’ve been able to continue to pursue my interest in developing environmentally sustainable systems while building meaningful relationships and community connections. It’s been an exciting few years, and I’m thrilled about the positive momentum we’re building here around creating just and sustainable food systems.”

Because Plant It Forward is a small non-profit organization, without clear divisions among many departments or teams, Folkerts’ day-to-day work can vary a lot, and she thrives on it. Working on multiple projects, writing grants, identifying and securing resources to meet program needs, and managing community events – in addition to her work directly with farmers – keeps Folkerts energized and excited about what’s coming next.

“With help from American Farmland Trust, next year I’ll start to conduct outreach and host trainings for landowners and aspiring new American farmers. I’m also building local support to establish a large, permanent regenerative farm site for Plant It Forward,” Folkerts said. “Having this site would lay the groundwork for upending historic patterns of land insecurity and creating a truly just and sustainable local food system for the Houston region.”