Farmrail's Petry rides off into sunset, but continues to cast a big shadow on short-line industry

Mentoring young employees and helping them advance was the hallmark of her more than 35-year career at Farmrail System Inc., Judy Petry says. Alaska Railroad Corp.

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

For more than three decades, Judy Petry gladly helped run Farmrail System Inc. because people at the company felt like family. 

Guided by Chairman George Betke, Clinton, Oklahoma-based Farmrail strived to become a family-like organization, such as through a transition to employee ownership. 

Family is also the reason Petry, 65, retired from Farmrail in late 2022 after more than 35 years of service. For the past several years, the longtime controller who later assumed the roles of president and general manager was helping many of her six siblings deal with life-altering personal and health issues. Among them: uterine cancer, heart disease, dementia, a knee replacement and the death of a nephew. 

Providing help and support meant Petry often traveled back and forth between her house in Elk City, Oklahoma, and her childhood home in Lacassine, Louisiana, where most of her family still resides. She felt the strain of trying to be in two places at once and had considered retirement for several years. 

“One day, I said I need to make a decision on what to do and where to be,” says Petry. 

That decision was swayed by close friends who surprised Petry and her husband Steven several years ago by offering to buy their house in Elk City. 

“We said it’s not for sale, but they said to give it a year and think about it, that it would be cash sale,” says Petry. “That was the chance to go back to my hometown, where kids still play in the streets in the afternoon. Lacassine is a quaint little town.” 

The Petrys eventually accepted their friends’ offer, then completed a new home in Lacassine in July 2022. Judy officially retired on Dec. 1, 2022, although she will continue to serve as a member of Farmrail’s board and a director of Alaska Railroad Corp. 

Petry joined Farmrail — which owns and operates Farmrail Corp. and Grainbelt Corp — in 1987 as manager of accounting services. Relying on her finance background and instinctive curiosity, she learned the railroad business by constantly questioning the financial figures generated by individual departments. 

George Betke and Judy Petry At the ASLRRA’s 2019 annual meeting in Orlando, George Betke (at the lectern) paid homage to Petry. ASLRRA President Chuck Baker is shown at left. American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association

“Judy had some accounting background, but little railroad knowledge beyond what the flashing red lights mean. She proved to be a special person with a talent for multi-tasking who learned rapidly from what the numbers and other teammates were telling her about the different aspects of our business,” Betke says. “She stepped up the level of our ground game and had the confidence to engage in industry affairs, and maintain external contacts with state and federal officials.” 

During her career, Petry helped guide Farmrail as it expanded from its original 80 miles of track to today’s 347 miles in 12 counties. Farmrail primarily is dependent on agricultural production and oilfield development to drive traffic. Petry also was instrumental in the Farmrail joint venture that created Finger Lakes Railway Corp. in New York. 

For Betke, “team player” and “caring” top the list of Petry’s personal attributes. 

“She was the ideal leader to promote the concept of teamwork consistent with our innovative employee stock ownership program,” he says. 

Petry isn’t regretting her decision to retire — despite missing the daily contact with her Farmrail friends — because Lacassine is “where I need to be,” she says. 

“I couldn’t give 100% to Farmrail, so I couldn’t take their salary. I knew it was the right path and the right thing to do,” Petry says. “There’s peace and comfort in knowing what to do.” 

She feels blessed to have worked with Betke for more than 35 years. 

“Farmrail is all about the people, and George knew that. He wanted to give the people more than a salary — that’s the heart of Farmrail,” Petry says. “Farmrail is so much more than a job, you can apply yourself and get a job anywhere. Farmrail is about the people and the relationships.” 

Judy Petry Petry plans to keep a toe in the short-line industry waters by serving as a board member for Farmrail and the Alaska Railroad. Judy Petry

She also highly values all the time and energy she devoted to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) as a contributor, officer and leader since the early 1990s. Petry began as a volunteer, helping to organize the association’s annual convention. 

“The association was small then. We’d get maybe 150 people to attend the convention,” she says. 

Petry helped recruit others to assist with planning and organizing the annual meeting, and eventually the number of people working on the event grew to 40 and the attendee count exceeded 1,000. 

Later, Petry chaired the convention and the association. For many years, she also was a member of the association’s finance and administration committee. At one time, she was part of an integration team that worked to encourage short lines to report car hire information electronically.  

“We got hundreds of them to do it,” she says. “It would be a black hole if they couldn’t report.” 

Petry was a towering figure in the association for 20 years, ASLRRA President Chuck Baker said in a statement issued when she retired. 

“Judy played an active role on ASLRRA’s board since 2004 and served as its first female chair from 2016 to 2019. She was a mentor to many new leaders, and always pushed for the betterment of our association and our industry, doing collectively what none of us can do individually,” he said. 

As ASLRRA’s first female leader, Petry clearly was at the forefront of women gaining prominence in what had traditionally been a man’s vocation, says Betke. She didn’t accomplish that through self-promotion, but by asking questions, learning, doing and applying fundamental common sense, he adds. 

“We’re pleased that she is willing to serve us in ‘retirement’ as a director-mentor while Farmrail undergoes generational change along with other pioneers in the post-Staggers short-line renaissance,” Betke says. 

In 2008, Petry received The League of Railway Industry Women’s “Outstanding Woman of the Year Award.”

Looking back over her career, Petry is most proud of her efforts to work with dozens of young people at Farmrail, and help them develop and grow in their careers. 

“We took people off the street and made them a railroader,” she says. 

Examples of Petry’s mentoring and guidance over the years include Sonja Marshall, who began in accounts payable and worked her way up to administrative superintendent; Jeff Blanchard, who started in the equipment division and later became transportation superintendent; and Kelly Rippetoe, who joined the company in her teens and eventually became roadway superintendent. 

“Jeff is the best person we’ve ever had with logistics,” Petry says. “The big thing is all these people also developed me — I grew because of these people.” 

Now, her advice to young people is to not overlook the rail industry as a potential career. 

“You can build relationships with people. I made lifelong friends in the industry,” Petry says. “It’s not only about the money. Do something you like. Most of the time in the industry, you’ll like it.” 

What Petry likes to do now is spend more time with her four grandsons, who span in age from 8 to 16. She has a 41-year-old son and 40-year-old daughter.  

Petry also plans to spend more time on another passion: gardening. 

“I love gardening. I grew up in the rice fields in Lacassine,” she says. 

And best of all, Petry expects to keep at least a few tentacles in the rail industry. Serving on Farmrail’s and the Alaska Railroad’s boards will help in that regard. 

“I will still be involved a little,” Petry says.