Nov 1, 2018Resources help veterans find extended service
Some American military veterans struggle to find a new mission after their service in the armed forces ends, but advocates and policymakers are encouraging them to try agriculture.
Adam Ingrao, an agricultural entomologist for Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, is a good example of how well the transition can work. Recently selected for Fruit Growers News’ 40 under 40 award, he has a doctorate degree in entomology and in addition to his nonprofit work with other veterans, he has a startup business, Bee Wise Farms.
The Ph.D. farmer has come a long way from the discouraged young man whose parents once had to coax him out of the house to work in the family garden. Ingrao served in U.S. Army active duty in 2003-2004, but during training suffered knee, ankle and back injuries that forced his medical discharge.
“You lose that camaraderie, you miss that mission-based lifestyle, and coming back to be a civilian and being disabled was a lot to handle,” he said. “And I really came back with no sense of direction.”
But his parents’ suggestion turned out to be a good one.
Ingrao serves as the Veterans’ Liaison for Extension and has been active in the Michigan chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which with another group, the Veterans in Agriculture Network of Michigan Food and Farming Systems, serve a total of roughly 1,200 veterans in the state. In his experience, many military veterans have trouble settling on a new career because they feel a need to serve a greater purpose.
“We didn’t sign up for the military to sit in an office,” he said. “Veterans serve because they understand that there are purposes that are greater than themselves.”
Ingrao sees farming as a continued national service. The nation needs a steady food supply to remain independent and secure, and he said most veterans he deals with understand that.
“They understand the importance of it, and they look at farming as an opportunity to continue their country in a valuable way, by providing healthy foods to their communities and ensuring the food security of the United States of America. We are serving as farmers to make sure our community and country succeed.”
A fenced industry
While veterans may find farming to be an attractive second career, there are plenty of hurdles for them to clear in order to get established in those careers.
Access to capital, land and infrastructure is a major hurdle. Ingrao said many veterans can get a small start with fewer than 50 acres by growing diversified produce for farm markets, hobby farming with a side job, or even subsistence farming. Then there are grant and loan programs. The national Farmer Veteran Coalition has a fund that offers small awards from $1,000 to $5,000 for critical items like greenhouses, irrigation systems, used tractors and so on.
Since the fund was established in 2011, the Farmer Veteran Fellowship fund has awarded more than $1 million in such grants. The country’s next farm bill wasn’t signed at press time in mid-September, but the 2014 bill established a USDA microloans program that allows veterans and beginning farmers from other disadvantaged groups to borrow up to $50,000.
Another hurdle for many veterans is the various service-related challenges they face.
“Lots of us do have disabilities,” Ingrao said. “You can design a farm to accommodate those individuals.”
Physical problems such as the injuries that Ingrao faced can make the actual walking and lifting an issue. The National AgrAbility Project and associated state projects work with growers who have mobility or dexterity problems offering specialized equipment and training.
Ingrao said it’s important not to underestimate what challenged individuals can accomplish. For example, a variety of companies offer tank-tracked wheelchairs for off-road use.
“I know a veteran who is a triple amputee who is a farmer,” he said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans presents a unique set of challenges, but “Being outdoors and having your hands in the soil is a good place to be in terms of mental health.”
Vouching for veterans
A growing number of programs and mentors are available to veterans needing to learn the actual trade and craft of agriculture production.
MSU offers more than 20 residential ag tech programs that offer hands-on training, and that can be financed by GI Bill funding. Ingrao’s program for helping fellow veterans, called Hives to Heroes (H2H), has mentored 128 veterans and veterans’ spouses in what he calls the “art and science of beekeeping.”
Before he was recruited to MSU, Ingrao got his start in a certificate program at Cal Poly, which now offers the Farmer Experiential Education and Development (FEED). While such certificate programs are useful, he said one downside is that they’re only short courses and workshops.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition maintains a database of on-the-job training opportunities such as internships and apprenticeships. Some so-called “incubator farms” focus on bringing new farmers into the agriculture industry with a small plot of land on a larger farm.
New programs pop up. When the Mattioli family and the Rodale Institute this summer broke ground on Pocono Organics, an organic farm, greenhouse and farm market near the family-owned Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, they announced that the startup will include a Veterans’ Farmer in Training Program. Farmers will be able to train for eight months under the leadership of Rodale Institute staff and will help veterans transition into careers within the organic agriculture industry.
“It is catching on for veterans to become farmers, and it is becoming more popular as other veterans communicate the value of agriculture to other veterans,” Ingrao said.
Editor’s note: This is the start of a series about military veterans entering specialty crops agriculture.