Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the region in northwest Mississippi known as one of the richest agricultural areas in the U.S., Bonnie Wells is used to having the door held open for her and other acts of chivalry. But when it comes to collecting samples in the field, she’ll insist on doing it herself.
As the commercial agriculture agent for UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County and a doctor of plant medicine, you can often find her in fields of potato or cabbage peering under leaves to check for disease or setting traps for pests. When she’s back at the office, residents will bring in bugs—sometimes still alive—for her to identify.
In an industry traditionally dominated by men, Wells is part of a new generation of women who are getting up close and personal with insects, weeds, soils and fungi.
Being a woman in agriculture has its unique challenges, she says, but those don’t define her professionally. “At the end of the day, it’s about what I can do for the farmer, and how I can help them better their operations and communities,” she says.
Though she’s passionate about agriculture now, Wells didn’t always see herself working in the industry.
“Until about my second year into college, I was on a journalism career path. After a fascinating and enjoyable student job in a polymer science laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi, and my first organic chemistry class, I fell in love with science and knew that is where I wanted to focus my efforts. I changed majors and graduated with a biochemistry degree hoping to study medicinal drugs derived from plants or other natural sources.”
But then life threw her a curveball. Her mother was diagnosed with late stage cancer, and Wells moved back home to be with her. She got a job as a research associate in the plant pathology department at the nearby Mississippi State University’s Agricultural Forestry and Experiment Station, and also started a graduate degree in mycology at MSU.
“One day, walking down the hall to class at MSU, I saw a poster with a tear-off card to get more information about the Doctor of Plant Medicine program at the University of Florida. It sounded right for me, so I tore it off, and mailed it in. And the rest is history,” Wells says.
Wells liked how the DPM program covered all aspects of plant health. “I also loved the fact that everything I learned would be 100 percent applicable to agriculture, and the job opportunities upon graduation seemed endless,” she said.
Wells will soon have another tool for bringing science to farmers: She recently won a grant from St. Johns County to establish and lead a Plant Diagnostics Triage Lab at the UF/IFAS Hastings Agricultural Extension Center.