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Farm Ops’ Cohort Learning Sessions Bring Veterans Together to Talk Ag

During the Small Farm Program’s online course season, Farm Ops, our military veteran project, provided veterans with free enrollment into select on-line courses and conducted veteran learning cohort sessions to supplement the course material.

It is commonly known that military veterans are drawn towards opportunities to learn and train together, but in early 2020 when the pandemic derailed in-person training opportunities, the inability to meet in person became more than disappointing. 

“I felt isolated. I had not been farming long and not being able to meet and talk to other farmers was discouraging,” stated veteran farmer, Jesse Wixson. 

Marine veteran, Rich Mattingly, participated in the Starting Seeds with the Three Sisters workshop and cohort sessions. Rich received corn, bean and squash seeds in mail along with 14 other veterans, who shared their growing experiences throughout the season.
Courtesy of Rich Mattingly

Veteran project associate, Dean Koyanagi, decided that he was not going to wait until the pandemic ended to bring veterans back together. He set up virtual office hours on Zoom and invited veteran farmers across New York State to join him and other veterans engage in farm-related discussions. “We knew we had veterans ready to expand their farming efforts during the pandemic, but they were unable to connect with peers and mentors at a critical time for beginning farmers,” Dean said. “We knew it might not replace those strong connections made through spending time together in-person. But for some, it helped maintain their motivation.” 

In January 2021, Dean also decided to work with the Small Farms Program’s Online Course Coordinator, Erica Frenay, to support free enrollment into online courses for veterans. Over time, the concept of bringing veterans together virtually when enrolled in the same SFP online course seemed like a natural progression and with support from the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, the concept quickly became a reality. 

“In the cultural transformation of Whole Health, community is the circle that brings it all together,” said Danielle Lutz, Doctor of Physical Therapy at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center. “Our partnership with Cornell over these years has allowed us to expand an support the community of Veterans interested and working in agriculture. This community helps support our mission of empowering and equipping our Veterans on their pathway to discover/rediscover ‘what matters most’ to them.”

When enrolled in a Small Farms Program online course, a person may interact with individuals, not just from around the United States, but from around the world. The Farm Ops veteran cohort sessions bring together the veterans enrolled into that course as a smaller, more localized, collaborative group. Coast Guard veteran, Allison Lavine, started farming when she and her husband purchased acreage in Savona, NY in 2014. They learned mostly through trial by fire, reading lots of books, watching videos, and learning by personal mistakes and successes.  

“Our farm is ZiegenVine Homestead. On a small scale we raise goats, offering goat yoga since 2017; raise chickens and ducks for eggs; turkeys, and have raised pigs off and on for the past several years,” Allison shared. “I jumped at the chance to take the Cornell Small Farms Pastured Pigs course mainly because they offered veteran cohort learning sessions along with the course. The veteran sessions lead by veteran farmers were very informative, giving me the opportunity to talk about my experiences and plans for our farm, as well as learning from other veterans and their experiences farming. I am hoping to continue expanding my network of veteran farmers. As a veteran and a farmer, it is nice to have a sense of connection and community.” 

Veteran cohort sessions provide a space to collaborate with veteran peers, enhancing the learning experience and creating a sense of community. 

“Farming is hard, hard, really hard work; running any business today is difficult, and finding the time, resources and people to mentor you through the process is one of the most important seeds for putting down a supportive root system and growth! If it were not for the veteran cohorts, there is absolutely no way my farm would be past even a germinated seeds’ phase of growth. I am so grateful to my brothers and sisters and the cohort!” Lou Russell, Navy veteran and owner and operator of Jireh Organic Farms and Livestock of NY, said.  “As for the progress of my farm, well if not for Cornell Small Farms, Farm Ops, and the veteran cohort, I can surely say I would not be selling ‘Farm Fresh Eggs’ or have the Homegrown by Heroes Membership. The cohort for me is the purest form of support in a judgmental free zone; we can only succeed together!”

Marine and Army veteran Jeff Saeli learned how to raise pigs on rotational paddocks from Army veteran, Jesse Wixson, and has now incorporated pastured pigs as an additional farm line of business.
Jamie Johnson / Cornell Small Farms Program

As veterans engage in a cohort, they may be exposed to new careers, opinions, experiences, and ideas. Because many veterans have similar interests, goals, and/or experiences, being part of a cohort makes it easier to further network and build relationships. 

“The veteran cohort sessions have allowed me to engage with a wide variety of both beginning and established farmers who are all linked together by their service. This link tends to engender a sense of base camaraderie that allows us to open up with each other, and I’ve found myself learning quite a bit just sharing and hearing others’ experiences, whether they be successes or failures,” stated Marine veteran, Rich Mattingly. “In our area, I have also been able to make connections with other farmer veterans that has given me a lot of hope for our success as we begin to build our farm business. As veterans, we tend to be fiercely independent while also having a pretty deep respect for needing support structures. It’s quite the dichotomy to wrap your head around and other veterans instinctually understand that push and pull.” 

Army veteran and farmer Jesse Wixson, who decided to log into one of the evening office calls with Farm Ops veteran associate, Dean Koyanagi, back in 2020 mentioned the difference that one cohort session made in his life. “If Dean had not taken initiative to reach out to veteran farmers and encourage us to use zoom as a meeting and collaborative platform, my life and farm would not be the same,” he shared. 

Jesse met farmer veteran Jeff Saeli because of one of these office calls. Quickly, they realized they only lived 10 miles from each other, and Jesse drove by Jeff’s farm every day to and from work. The families gathered for meals, sleigh riding, supported one another during personal and farm crisis, and have celebrated farm business growth despite a pandemic. This relationship grew into a partnership, when Jesse started assisting Jeff expand his farm business into pastured pork, and in return Jeff began helping Jesse run business analytics to support farm decisions, in addition to providing a portion of land for Jesse to raise additional pigs.

Nina Saeli

Nina retired from active duty in 2009. She and her husband, Jeffrey, own and operate Centurion Farm in Locke, NY. Nina also now works with the Cornell Small Farms Program as coordinator of our Farm Ops project supporting veterans in agriculture.