Veterans in Ag Working Group Summaries
Reaching veterans about agricultural opportunities will require several strategies, based upon their age and internet connectivity. A challenge we will face is actually finding veterans. The best approach is to build upon existing organizations who work with veterans and foster referrals to web and other print materials about the effort.
General news blasts: For those who have reintegrated into communities and who may not use social media, the best approach is to work closely with existing organizations who are already interfacing with veterans on a regular basis. Examples include the Veteran’s administration, public libraries, civic organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Elks, and churches. Key steps would include:
- Create informational materials about the opportunities in agriculture
- Share these with the civic organizations who can distribute these to veterans
- Have structured, consistent strategies to connect with these organizations and their veteran clients
- Create a feedback loop to stay aware of any veteran needs or interests
A quarterly newsletter could help collect opportunities in agriculture that could be shared through the network. These quarterly newsletters should be coupled with mass media announcements, using print, radio, bulletin boards, post offices and other general message outlets. Key organizational leaders include Department of Labor, Farmer Veteran Coalition of NY, and the Division of Veterans Affairs. In one year, the methods should result in at least 20 new inquiries about veterans interested in agriculture.
Specific outreach through key partners: The Department of Labor, Division of Veterans Affairs, Department of Corrections, Farmer Veteran Coalition of NY, Clear Path and some offices of Cornell Cooperative Extension all work directly with veterans and have means to track veteran interests and aspirations to work in agriculture. The above efforts to reach veterans can be also shared through these partners.
Social media: Given the change in the communications culture with social media, a website and social media (Facebook, twitter, list-serves, etc) outreach plan should be built that complements the above general approaches. Compelling stories about veterans farming should be highlighted through these outlets. This will help illustrate the ways in which veterans can find meaningful work in agriculture.
Regional gatherings: Organize social events and regional gatherings to allow face-to-face connections among veterans, NGOs, farm supporter and other partners to share information about agriculture opportunities. This will help foster word-of-mouth outreach to other veterans in an area who may have interest. This approach will also address a major concern of disenfranchisement; this occurs when a veteran tries to connect to resources/support by phone, but end up in a string of referrals. Veterans will fall back to isolation and working alone very quickly. When/if there are opportunities for veterans to have experiences on farms, these could be highlighted via these gatherings. Meeting on a veteran owned farm would be a highlight. Partners in these regional gatherings should include CCE, Farm Bureau, American Legion, Division of Veterans Affairs, and other members from this Summit.
1) Service providers need to meet the needs of veterans seeking hands-on farmer training. They need to be able to connect aspiring farmers with apprenticeship programs and other vocational training opportunities. Both veteran and agricultural service providers should have relationships with or the ability to connect veterans to the institutions (i.e. community colleges) or organizations (incubators and non-profits) that offer on-the-ground farmer training. They should have working knowledge of the online resources for finding apprenticeships/internships/vocational programs and identify farmer veteran mentors or other established growers that would like to have veterans work within their operation.
2) Agriculture service providers need to learn the existing VA networks and programs available for returning veterans to be able to connect with veterans before they are out of active service. They need to identify the “separation/transition” centers or offices in their region and make resources available within these existing career services programs. Examples include, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP; Navy) and the Career Alumni Program (CAP; Army). A package of materials should be developed to help these service providers lay out a framework for the opportunities and startup resources/programs that are available to support beginning farmers in NY State.
3) Agricultural service providers need to coordinate and develop the capacity to offer intensive business planning training for farmer veterans. This could be a “boot camp” training, where expert farmers, consultants, and cooperative extension develop a multi-day business plan assistance program. This training should foster teams and veteran-veteran working groups. Partnerships should also be developed between business plan consultants and veteran service centers to work within the existing veteran support network.
4) A formal program should be developed to train service providers as “Navigators” in supporting veterans seeking to enter farming or agricultural business. This program should be curriculum based, foster leadership in farmer-veteran services, and provide a sustained network. It should recruit farmers, agricultural and veteran service providers for an extended training on veteran services, agricultural programs and services, and cultural sensitivities. Alumni of the program will have the capacity to be a point of contact for returning veterans seeking agricultural opportunities at the local/regional level.
Much of what was discussed in both sessions on this topic was applicable to any new farmer, not specific to veterans. Typical suggestions included ensuring that newbies get hands-on experience before launching their own farm, providing them with good mentors, and developing a clearinghouse of information on starting a farm.
Veteran-specific suggestions that came up repeatedly were:
1) Building trust and streamlining services – these two strategies go hand-in-hand. Veterans may resist asking for help and be slower than other new farmer audiences to trust service providers. If organizations bounce them around with too many disconnected referrals, they will not persist with reaching out and instead will pull back and figure it out themselves. It would be most helpful if there was a single point person to provide full-service farm start-up counseling, from getting the land and experience to writing the business plan, securing funding, and starting up.
2) Making necessary structural changes to allow more “certificate”/non-accredited programs to be approved for use of GI Bill funds, and also enable veterans to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors with support from GI benefits
3) Similarly, approval for select farms as official On-the-Job Training (OJT) sites, allowing veterans to get that important hands-on experience with financial support from their GI benefits.
4) Networks and opportunities to learn from other veterans: sharing veteran farmer success stories, intensive entrepreneurial boot camps, and networking opportunities were all supported as valuable elements to veteran farmer training.
This break-out group discussed four key challenges and corresponding opportunities to connect veterans to jobs in agriculture.
First, veterans are interested in agriculture jobs and trainings, but don’t know how to find them. To address this need, participants suggested creating an ‘Agriculture Jobs Online Exchange’ modeled after Craigslist and combining elements of LinkIn. This online bulletin board would offer space to farmers or members of the agricultural industry to post jobs available or skill sets needed. Similarly, veterans could post jobs they are seeking. The Online Exchange could also include directories of land for sale or lease, upcoming trainings and educational opportunities, or networking events.
Second, agriculture related careers are currently not represented at discharge trainings, job fairs, trade shows or community events targeted toward veterans. To address this need, participants suggested that organizers of these events invite a broad range of farmers, agriculture educators, and agriculture industry members to introduce veterans to the full spectrum of jobs and educational opportunities available.
Third, veterans need access to both academic and practical, hands-on training in farming and agriculture, but often don’t have the funds to pay tuition and fees. To address this need, participants suggested that educational organizations, farmers and ag businesses work with Education Liasons at the Department of Veterans Affairs to become accredited ‘On the Job Training Programs’ . Once ‘OJT’ status has been acquired by an employer or institution, veterans can use GI Bill benefits to cover the cost/tuition for the training.
Finally, veterans need opportunities to develop practical skills in farming prior to launching farm businesses. To address this need, participants suggested designing a certificate program with a ‘Skills Checklist’ that could be adapted by farmers. Veterans that complete this ‘portable’ curriculum under the guidance of the farmer mentor would then receive certification to advance to future trainings or management positions.