The Farmer’s Ambassador: Rachel Vann Provides Practical Guidance in New PSI Role 

Rachel Vann poses at N.C. PSI opening

Most new jobs permit (at least) a short honeymoon period. But Rachel Vann, the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative’s (N.C. PSI) new Extension Outreach and Engagement Platform Director is already in motion. 

“The time is now for Extension faculty at NC State to lean into the PSI,” Vann said. “We should embrace the opportunity this initiative provides for ensuring the longevity of Extension’s impact in North Carolina and improving the lives of our clientele.”

Her new role will throttle the flux of communication between multiple research teams and the end-users — NC farmers. It’s a dual function of outreach and engagement. She explains that outreach is about communicating science externally to stakeholders whereas engagement is about facilitating the integration of field perspectives into project development. 

“Essentially, we want to make sure PSI’s research is a two-way street of communication,” Vann said.

As NC State’s Soybean Extension Specialist, Vann is keenly familiar with this charge. Her Specialist role is an Extension-heavy position (90%) that oversees a vibrant applied research program, both on-farm and at research stations. 

“Our soybean program concentrates on being responsive to the needs of NC farmers. It gives me frequent opportunities to hear what growers and county agents view as research priorities,” Vann said. 

Soybean farmers listen to Rachel Vann's presentation at a field day
Rachel Vann presents at numerous Extension field days for growers throughout the year.

Extensive Experience

NC State Soybean Extension Specialist talks in a field
Vann releases frequent management updates for soybean growers.

While her platform director role is new, Vann was already involved in PSI as an outreach committee chair with one of the founding Game-Changing Research Incentive Program (GRIP4PSI) projects entitled “Fertilizers of the Future.” The effort’s goal is to develop technology that senses when plants need nutrients and facilitates on-farm delivery. 

Her involvement in that project demonstrated opportunities to expand Extension’s role throughout PSI’s research timelines. 

“My vision is to help researchers deliver science to agricultural stakeholders by facilitating internal and external interactions and brainstorming on how these improvements could work on real farms. And then, when the technology is ready, helping the team set up the logistics of on-farm or research station trials.”

A Pulse on Pain Points

One of Vann’s greatest strengths is her pulse on growers’ needs. She readily reeled off three challenges heavy on farmers’ minds: making farm tech meaningful, adopting climate-smart practices for resource management, and staying ahead of evolving pest management.

“Dr. Vann will excel at connecting university research expertise with extension programming to deliver science-based solutions to NC farmers,” said Jeff Mullahey, Head of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “She’s keenly in touch with farmers’ concerns and carries their voice in every discussion.”

Vann’s list of hot topics are themes in existing PSI projects and proposed college efforts, but are also top of mind to her as she sketches out an agenda.

Outreach and Engagement Platform Goals

Although her platform director position officially started July 1, Vann has already outlined near-term goals.

1. Improve Internal Communication of PSI Projects & Invite Collaborators

NC State soybean group poses at the N.C. Plant Sciences Building
Vann’s soybean group takes time out of the field to visit the Plant Sciences Building.

“We want to find ways to inform the broader university community about the happenings in PSI. We’re working with researchers to communicate about their projects — what disciplines are represented, what their short-term agricultural impact will be, and what future collaborative opportunities are available to advance their science.”

The PSI communications team is planning an internal survey to document existing research and a series of short videos communicating the work. She also envisions a rotating seminar series or regularly-occurring event that draws in researchers from across the university. She intends to foster a community that constantly brings new perspectives to engage with the Initiative.

“For those who come to these events, they will readily see the benefit to their own programs of being collaborative across disciplines and colleges —  whether they are housed in the Plant Sciences Building, or not.”

2. Leverage the University’s Digital Agriculture Expertise & Assets to Expand Training & Solutions Capacity

Vann is partnering with Extension technical specialists in Crop and Soil Sciences and Biological and Agricultural Engineering to train agents and provide solutions for growers to help them best utilize the data they have. 

They are planning a multi-college training series on digital ag topics, incorporating talent and infrastructure from other disciplines that focus on computer science or data analysis. 

“We want to help Extension leaders accomplish the training they want and also eventually form a smooth pipeline for training agents and growers on technologies developed out of PSI. Plus it’s a great opportunity to get Extension Specialists who aren’t currently engaged with PSI involved via this digital ag training.”

3. Develop Best Practices for Integrating Extension Expertise in Research Development

PSI’s approach is fundamentally about interdisciplinary research — integrating teams from various colleges and expertise to jump-start innovation. With this diversity of thought often comes a difference in communication expectations.

“In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, communicating our science is a big part of what we do – it’s just as important as the science itself. But now we are interacting with groups who aren’t accustomed to that level or frequency of outreach. It’s paramount that we provide the available resources to communicate externally throughout a PSI project’s timeline.” 

While new perspectives undoubtedly foster novel ideas, progress has to be practical for farm operations. That’s where Extension expertise becomes essential. Vann wants to create a PSI framework that integrates Extension from project conception to completion.

“We have to create a structure where there is more opportunity for collision between all the players: researchers from different colleges, Extension Specialists, and Extension agents — where these audiences can have a dialogue on the concept and direction of research projects.”

An On-Farm Network Prototype

In recent years, Vann piloted a large on-farm trial network for soybean research where local Extension agents run protocols developed in conjunction with the Soybean Producers  Association.

She would like to use that system as a prototype for scaling PSI research and field testing technologies. She sees on-farm testing as an integral communication strategy to involve county Extension personnel and create local touchpoints with growers.

“An important aspect of PSI communication is getting the technology out into North Carolina so that people are aware of the solutions being developed and are able to interface with those locally. Any advances won’t be successfully integrated into our agricultural systems unless they are effectively communicated — and agents and growers are effectively trained.”

Rachel Vann poses with a NC Extension group on a field visit
Vann and a group of NC Extension agents visit soybean fields in Iowa to learn best practices.

Communicating Outcomes

Because the Initiative predates the recent opening of its home in the Plant Sciences Building, results are already materializing. One of Vann’s first tasks is working with PSI teams to document and communicate those impacts. 

“Many teams have already generated technology and results that are meaningful for North Carolina producers, even if it wasn’t the end goal of the project. We need to help facilitate the  communication of their science and advocate for the resources to do that communication. Sometimes we have the ideas and energy but not always the resources to get Extension efforts done. Part of my role is to advocate for those resources.”

NC State Extension soybean field research program
Vann has an active soybean field research program both on NC farms and research stations.

PSI Visibility Schedule

With much to share with various audiences, Vann’s schedule is filling. 

2022 Extension Field Days (July – October)

Vann, PSI Director Adrian Percy, and members of the communication team are taking advantage of upcoming Extension field days to interact with growers and showcase PSI work. They plan a presence at several larger field days including a PSI booth to highlight projects, answer questions, and collect feedback.

State Extension Conference (October)

For NC Extension personnel, PSI will join the State Extension Conference to share projects that are underway and share PSI’s coalescing strategic plan.

PSI Field Tour (Fall)

A group of farmers listen to an NC State Extension presentation at a soybean field.
Vann presents at numerous Extension field days across the state each year.

Since many PSI team members are potentially new to agriculture or field research, Vann is helping to plan a fall field tour to take researchers out of the lab and into rural North Carolina. She wants them to see farm operations in action, observe field issues and hear growers discuss their needs. 

“Part of this position is ensuring that scientists from across NC State are interacting with growers like Extension Specialists do every day.”

Building A Bridge 

Vann has a litany of ideas for communicating PSI progress, both inside the university and out, including infographic videos, a PSI podcast, explainer articles, and field day presentations, which will require a village. 

The group is working to build a multilayered communications approach to put the work into words. 

“We want to highlight the existing Extension infrastructure we have in NC with our county-level presence and Extension specialists. I know how effective NC Extension is at communicating with stakeholders in North Carolina. One of my goals in this position is to ensure that researchers understand Extension’s strength and utilize that resource to get their information out.”

NC Extension presentation on deer management
NC Extension Agent Jenny Carleo presents to a packed house on deer management.

The Single Biggest Thing

Vann’s singular focus is to make sure PSI’s outputs are easily implemented on-farm. She believes that integrating Extension expertise upfront will account for operational nuances that could make or break integration and adoption. 

“I want it to become the norm that field expertise is incorporated at the very beginning of project conception and the resources are embedded in these projects to make outreach effective throughout the project pipeline, so that documenting the impact of the science is seamless.” 

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tractor mowing a field with the NC State logo