Henry Perry’s grandpa grew up relying on the earth and shared these lessons with Henry. “I can remember him being really gentle and caring with plants. He would refer to the earth as Mother Earth,” Henry ’18 speaks slowly, recalling time spent with his grandpa when he was six. It was only later that he realized that these interactions were likely the root of his passion for agriculture.
As a freshman science pre-professional major Henry’s drive to pursue agriculture grew rapidly, even as he struggled to find topical courses. Inspired by the surrounding cornfields, Henry dove into the Hesburgh Library archives, finding a rich agricultural history at Notre Dame. “Notre Dame even had an Agriculture Department in the College of Science in the 1930s. And the area that is now the west golf course was a huge vegetable garden,” Henry lists his findings. He learned of St. Joseph’s Farm, which Holy Cross Brothers cultivated for over 150 years, harvesting food for the campus. After his freshman year Henry worked at this farm, now owned by an alumnus in Granger.
While he strove to reawaken an agricultural awareness at Notre Dame, Henry leveraged Notre Dame’s strengths to combine agriculture with human health. He wants to innovate agriculture in developing countries, where more nutrient-rich crops could save lives. “I never really saw that being studied so that’s the slant I wanted to take,” Henry emphasizes his desire to improve health by improving food. From a writing and rhetoric course emphasizing farming, to a graduate level agricultural economics course, Henry found classes that covered agriculture thematically, but was left thirsting for exposure to the basics. This thirst was quenched when he spent his third year of college studying at Cornell.
Ithaca and Cornell were different from Henry’s home under the dome in many ways, from the lack of expansive cornfields to the lack of a chapel in every building. “There were more diverse types of people from different walks of life,” he says. Though it was a little jarring at first, Henry grew to like this culture, while delighting in agriculture classes that perfectly complemented his education at Notre Dame. “One of the most essential things I was exposed to was field and crop systems,” Henry describes one of his classes. “It really delves into the basics of crops all around the world. It has a focus with a local, industrial scale and also what goes into the science of growing crops in the developing world. That was pretty eye opening.” Henry’s plethora of experiences at Cornell included a summer working on a research field crew and a class in plant genetics, doing PCR – lab techniques he’d learned at Notre Dame were now applied to plants.
Back at Notre Dame for two more years, Henry had renewed vigor to seek out like-minded students and “bring agriculture back to Notre Dame.” In the spring of his fourth year he took a horticulture class based in the Galvin Greenhouse and taught by Theri Neimier, who runs Bertrand Farm 20 minutes from campus. This connected him to several students who shared some of his interests, including Maria Sasso ’18, now vice president of Henry’s sprouting Collegiate 4H club.
This past summer, Henry spent his time in the newly re-opened “Grow Irish” faculty and staff community garden, on Ivy Road. With permission to use the extra space and some funding from the Career Center, the Sustainability Minor, and Theri Neimier, Henry developed a student plot from the ground up. Obtaining cardboard boxes from the recycling department to suppress weeds and borrowing buckets from the landscaping department to prop up baby tomato plants, Henry creatively solved problems as they grew. “It was a good experience for me to have increased responsibility in establishing a garden, which I had never really done before.” With Maria’s help, he built a fence to keep deer out and then another to keep the persistent groundhogs away. By the fall, they had established “St. Joseph’s Farm II,” naming their plot after the original Holy Cross farm.
Tomatoes, butternut squash, beets, sweet peppers and chili peppers have kept the students busy during harvest season. Henry plans to give the produce to Corby Hall, Our Lady of the Road homeless shelter and also to hungry students. The plot is on its way to becoming the hands-on component of the developing Collegiate 4H club, as Henry and Maria work to nail down the logistics of organizing students and hosting regular meetings. In addition to being the year-round stewards of the student plot, the Collegiate 4H club will work closely with 4H clubs at local elementary and high schools. It’s listed as a social service club, emphasizing the club’s focus on connecting to the local agricultural community.
While he tends to the garden and nurtures the developing Collegiate 4H club, Henry is planning to apply to graduate school so he can pursue research that combines healthcare with agriculture. While he aspires to study the nutritional content of food in developing nations, Henry pours his heart into nurturing his current community. Reflecting on his grandfather’s wisdom, Henry says, “I realized that life in any form has to be sustained and cared for with diligence.”