Keith Tidball’s Friday Field Notes: Veterans in Agriculture
The Cornell Small Farms Program (CSFP) makes its home in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. CSFP works collaboratively with a network of Cornell University faculty and staff, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) educators, and other small farm advocates throughout New York State to generate innovative research and extension initiatives that enhance small farm viability. We are currently engaged in a three-year project to support military service members and their families who farm and create pathways into agriculture for veterans seeking a career in the field. Transitioning service members bring many applicable skills with them to agricultural careers and they can make great farmers. Furthermore, those who farm often report that they find it deeply satisfying, allowing them to continue to serve their community, while also providing a nurturing environment in which they can heal. Farming is not an easy career for anyone but transitioning service members often encounter unique obstacles when considering entering into farming. There are over 800,000 military veterans in New York State, but they exist in a dispersed population, varying from 3-15% of the total population of each county. Because they do not have a dominant presence in any one location, specialized resources are often lacking, ultimately presenting a high barrier to entering agricultural jobs and further marginalizing these transitioning service members. Our project seeks to be a central point of contact and a resource hub for veterans who are passionate about agriculture in the state.
Our strategy for supporting veterans takes a three-pronged approach:
- Provide educational opportunities in agriculture directly to military service men and women and their families (predominantly veterans);
- Empower traditional agricultural service providers AND traditional military service member service providers to better support veterans who want to farm;
- Certify farms in New York State to provide On-the-Job training to veterans.
Education and Training for Veterans
CSFP supports military veterans in New York directly by providing resources, training opportunities, and networking events. We work closely with key partners in the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) system to provide targeted, localized agricultural training opportunities to veterans. County extension offices make logical partners in our efforts to support veterans in agriculture due to their educational resources, community visibility, and existing networks. We see farming as both a way for veterans to make a living and a way to reintegrate with local communities. In this sense, CCE is able to connect interested veterans with farmers, homesteaders, and food producers who have similar interests within the community. In August of 2015, working with Cooperative Extension of Allegany County and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, we ran a five-day intensive farm training program, called Armed to Farm, in Western New York state. The week long retreat utilized a mix of classroom and hands-on education to give 28 veterans a taste for what it would be like to start their own farm. The participants and instructors stayed together in a college dorm and took most meals together, creating a strong sense of camaraderie among the cohort. This training program will be replicated again this year, in Central New York, and in 2017, in Eastern New York. Also last year, through our partners atCooperative Extension of Jefferson County, we were able to offer an “Ag Industry field day” to transitioning army personnel at Ft. Drum in Northern New York. Working in collaboration with the Transition Assistance Program on the base, we toured a number of different local farms, as well as a winery, and a large farm machinery dealer. We see this opportunity to work with Fort Drum as vital, since they currently have roughly 4,500 soldiers leaving the base as civilians each year.
Training the Trainers
In order to help cooperative extension better serve veterans we dedicated a full day of our annual “train-the-trainer” event to bring together traditional agricultural educators with traditional military service personnel. This allowed folks who serve veterans to learn more about the viability of farming as a career, while simultaneously teaching extension educators about the resources that are available to veterans as they transition to civilian life. This type of network building is a hallmark of our work and allows us to leverage connections to create a much greater impact. In addition to structured professional development events, we spend a good deal of our time making connections between individuals who are working to support veterans but do not know about each other. As noted in last week’s Friday Field Notes, there are a lot of people who are working in this field but often they exist in silos, through no fault of their own. Breaking down these silos can be challenging and time consuming but the results are often powerful. Because our work encompass the entire State of New York (which is quite large), we depend upon these networks of service providers to connect with each other in order to identify the veterans in their communities who are interested in agriculture and provide relevant programming.
On the Job Training
Short, intensive training opportunities can be ideal for some but what about more formalized training for veterans seeking careers in agriculture? Although careers in agriculture are increasingly thought to be rewarding for veterans, most types of farm training are not eligible for military education benefits, such those offered through the GI Bill. Transitioning service members are able to use GI Bill benefits for certain kinds of training, such as in the trades (e.g. plumbing or electric), or for accredited college programs. However, no state that we know of currently allows military service members to use their benefits to get hands-on agricultural training on farms. To change this, we are working with partners at the New York State Division of Veteran’s Affairs to develop high-quality, on-the-job training (OJT) programs for veterans on farms. Our challenge now is to find the right kind of farms to host on-the-job training and then to match veterans to those farms. We hope to have two veterans placed on farms this growing season. Once we pilot OJT on a few farms and learn best practices, we believe that the model will be easy to replicate on farms across the state and perhaps in other states as well.
Over the next 18 months we will be working with The Institute of Veteran and Military Families at Syracuse University to evaluate outcomes from this project. We will be looking at success in terms of how many veterans have started a career in agriculture, how many have improved an existing farm business, and also at how the veterans we have worked with may have improved health outcomes, quality of life, and community support. We look forward to sharing success stories, lessons learned, and best practices with you in the future regarding how extension efforts are helping military service members transition from service to farming careers. For more information on the project please contact Dean Koyanagi (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call our office at 607-255-9911.
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