Midwest Region Plans to Expand Agriculture Spaces and New Faces
The Midwest team at American Farmland Trust, or AFT, is expanding its staffing and vision. In a recent training at Starved Rock in Oglesby, Illinois the Midwest team all gathered and met for the first time. Together they explored meeting facilitation skills; learning to balance group dynamics and achieve goals and priorities in an inclusive and effective manner. Team members used the time to brainstorm and evaluate potential opportunities for Midwest programs.
Since 1980, American Farmland Trust has been protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices, and keeping farmers on the land. In 2023, AFT’s Midwest region plans to engage with programs and networks that support regional food systems, invest in urban and peri-urban Midwest agriculture, and help new and beginning farmers realize their personal and professional ambitions of stewarding the land, especially those from underserved communities.
To help see these spaces flourish, the Midwest team is building their internal capacity with three new hires.
Dylan Cook is the new Midwest policy manager and is a first-generation farmer, owner and operator of Cook Farm in Bloomington, Illinois. Dylan will help the Midwest region carry out state policy agendas and will be working with the AFT Federal Policy team, consultants, and external partners to advocate for policies and programs that save the land that sustains us. He will also support broader efforts to develop and grow programs, working across teams within the Midwest region and with external partners including farmers, landowners, agricultural professionals, and institutional leaders.
Cook Farm was founded in 2010 and is a highly diverse specialty crop farm that produces vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers for end markets in Chicago, Bloomington, Peoria, and Champaign, Illinois. Cook Farm also uses cover crops and hay as part of their crop rotation. In 2011, Dylan co-founded Legacy of the Land, a 15-member marketing cooperative that assisted farmers with marketing, crop coordination, delivery logistics, and strategic goal setting.
Dylan earned his degrees in political science, with a focus on international agriculture policy, and environmental philosophy at Southern Illinois University.
Rachel Lechuga is an Illinois native, a lover of all things outdoors, and the newest Midwest program associate. She will support efforts to improve soil health, accelerate the adoption of conservation cropping systems, and increase the resiliency of Midwest agricultural systems. She comes from a long line of farmers in Bolivia and Guatemala, and to no surprise, she immersed herself in the Illinois food and Midwest agriculture scape. She is most fascinated about the connections between healthy soils, scalable and sustainable agricultural lands, increasing food access, and supporting historically marginalized farmers in any capacity.
Rachel spent various seasons in organic vegetable production in northern Illinois focusing on soil health and small farm planning and development. She also worked as a farmer in rural Bolivia growing organic peaches and learning from local ag experts about their agriculture practices. She returned to Kane County and worked on Feeding America’s first online food pantry, My Pantry Express, as a program coordinator at Northern Illinois Food Bank. She worked to improve the program by offering Spanish services and translations to customers and partners. She also worked on human-centered design principles by learning and working with design company, IDEO. She went on to work collaboratively with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council to support their annual Food Justice Summit. She recently took most of 2022 to live in Bolivia and travel to Argentina, Iceland, and Norway to name a few locations.
Rachel received her Bachelor of Science from Northern Illinois University in conservation and land restoration with a focus on sustainable local food systems. She is a foodie by nature and loves to travel to explore new dishes. She recently discovered her love for cross-country skiing and dancing tango. She loves hiking, camping, kayaking, identifying plants, and anything that involves being outside!
Piero Taico will provide creativity and leadership as the new communications manager for the Midwest region, working from his home office in Springfield, Illinois. Piero’s non-profit career started as the communications coordinator for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, aiding in their shift towards statewide organizing – advocating for agriculture that works for farmers, communities, and the environment. While working for the Alliance, he visited farmers and farmers markets from Carbondale to Chicago, telling the story of revitalizing Illinois’ regional food system to help shift policy and empower local farmers.
Prior to joining AFT, Piero served as the assistant director for Downtown Springfield Inc, a Main Streets of America affiliate, and was mainly responsible for management of the Old Capitol Farmers Market, the largest producer-only farmers market in downstate Illinois. Piero has also served on the Diversity Committee for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and is currently a mentor for Green Lands, Blue Waters “Equipping the Next Generation of Agricultural Leaders” program.
Piero is a proud first generation Peruvian American, born in New Jersey, and living in the central Illinois area since grade school. In his spare time Piero can be found outside tending his garden, cooking Peruvian (and other) cuisine, playing with one of five pets (two dogs, three cats), or travelling with his partner of 10 years, Katie.