Mary Rogers is an associate professor of Sustainable & Organic Horticultural Food Production Systems in the Department of Horticultural Science. Her research program investigates plant‐insect interactions and biological and environmental strategies to improve the production of organic vegetables and fruit in the upper Midwest.

Mary Rogers was doing postdoctoral research at the University of Tennessee when she heard about a job opening in the horticulture department at the University of Minnesota. 

“I think everybody I knew forwarded it to me saying, did you see this opportunity to go back to Minnesota and do exactly what you want to do? So it was sort of a no-brainer to come back, and I was very lucky to have the opportunity,” Mary says. 

Mary returned to the U of M as a faculty member in the Department of Horticulture Science in December 2013. She is now the new Director of Graduate Studies for the Master of Professional Studies in Horticulture in CCAPS. Mary is also the faculty advisor for the Student Organic Farm in St. Paul.

Helping Students Follow Their Passion 

Mary Rogers

Mary was already familiar with some of the horticulture master’s students through the course she teaches on organic fruit and vegetable production. “I really enjoyed having the students in my class because they were a distinctly different audience than undergrads,” she says. “They're often returning students, a little bit older, and already have had professional careers. They're here because they want to be, and they're really passionate.”

Their perspective is a bit different, too. “They're professionally driven, and a lot of them are finding ways to connect previous degrees or experience with horticulture.”

She has taught students with backgrounds in writing, graphic design, and media production who learn how to apply their existing skills to a practice in horticulture. Some want to run their own business, like a greenhouse or urban farm, or study prairie restoration or regenerative agriculture. 

"It is helpful to remember that everyone has a unique path and different assets.”

“I see them following their passion in horticulture and then finding new careers that are more aligned with what they really want to be doing. It's always fascinating to follow students to see where they end up.”

What are you most looking forward to as Director of Graduate Studies for the MPS in Horticulture? 

“I am most excited to meet the students in the program on a one-to-one level, learn about their goals, and help channel their passions into professional opportunities in horticulture.”

What do you wish you knew when you were in graduate school?

“That it is totally normal to experience feelings of self-doubt about our knowledge and capabilities and compare ourselves to others from time to time. It is helpful to remember that everyone has a unique path and different assets.”

Getting Back to Basics

Mary’s broad research focus is on applying agroecological principles to crop production to improve food system sustainability. Agroecological principles involve thinking about ways we can grow our food that are more resilient and less damaging to the environment.

Water falling on a small plant in the ground

“It's also a way of bringing agriculture back to basics and thinking of how the system works holistically rather than focusing on inputs and outputs,” Mary says. “A lot of it is focused on very basic ecological principles like biodiversity.”

For example, if it’s a bad year for one type of crop, it could be a good year for a different kind of crop. So a farm that can vary what it grows will have a better chance of being more resilient. “(It) creates a buffer against losses, both in productivity and economically.”

Another important concept of agroecology is to rely on natural cycles for fertility. “Productivity starts with the health of the soil, so understanding that feeding the soil can build microbial diversity and functioning that then recycles nutrients that are available to plants. It's a way of being regenerative and not extractive, which is how a lot of conventional agriculture can be.” 

What Are Some of the Current Challenges in Horticulture and Agriculture? 

Climate change. “Our precipitation patterns are changing, as well as the freeze thaw cycles. In spring it's more serious for fruit production, because you can get warmer weather earlier, and then the plants come out of dormancy too early. They start producing flowers and then you get a cold snap. I think that we're going to start seeing more growers adopting environmental modifications or controlled environment agriculture to help reduce that risk.”

Food equity and access. “We're producing enough food for everybody, but not everybody has enough money to buy it. And we also have food waste where we're throwing away almost 30 to 40 (percent) of our food.”

Invasive species. “A lot of the pests that I work on in my research project are invasive. And that's a result of the globalized food system which we're completely dependent on. It means we're always trying to solve the next problem.”

Growing North Minneapolis

Person digging in the soil with a spade

Growing North Minneapolis (GNM) is a community-driven collaboration whose goal is to advance environmental, social, and racial justice through urban agriculture in North Minneapolis. It brings together community members, growers, leaders of all ages, and partner organizations.

Mary has been working with GNM for years, beginning with her relationship with Michael Chaney, a longtime food justice activist. His organization, Project Sweetie Pie, is a network of community gardens, gardeners, and youth in the Northside who come together and grow food. He connected with Bob Markhart, a former professor in the Horticultural Science department, and they brought youth from the neighborhood to the student organic farm on campus.

Mary continued that relationship by developing a summer program where University of Minnesota undergraduates work with youth in Step Up Minneapolis. Alongside community members and organizations, they co-mentor small groups of teens to provide education and workforce training in agriculture.