Veterans and community members are gaining career knowledge and tools through agriculture as part of a cooperative effort between West Virginia University Extension and Operation Welcome Home, a project designed to support military members moving from active-duty service to civilian life.
The Veterans in Agriculture Training program, made possible through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, provides veterans interested in careers in agriculture with hands-on experiences and classroom learning opportunities. The training also helps make connections between veterans and local communities.
“This project with Operation Welcome Home allows us to train veterans who are interested in agriculture as a career and teach them how they can turn agriculture into a profitable business,” Lewis Jett, WVU Extension professor and commercial horticulture specialist, said. “During the first year, veterans learn about a host of topics, including how to grow foods in a high tunnel, how we can use high tunnels for specialty crops throughout the year and how to turn that into a profit-generating business for growing local food in West Virginia.”
As part of the training program, Jett leads participants in planning and selecting a site, and then teaches the group how to build the high tunnel. Participants attend one to three classes every quarter at the high tunnel, which is located on an old strip mine site at Mylan Park, near the WVU Extension Monongalia County office, West Virginia Department of Agriculture regional office and Operation Welcome Home.
Lisa Jones, WVU Extension Small Farm Center program coordinator, worked with Operation Welcome Home to secure the grant and develop the partnership with WVU Extension. She said she hopes veterans will take advantage of future learning opportunities.
“In 2023, we plan to offer additional courses to veterans that focus on the ‘next step’ in building a successful business – marketing and selling,” Jones said. “After that, one of our Extension experts will help them understand the economics side of the business and the importance of being profitable.”
The WVU Extension team also is exploring adding a course in raising chickens, animals that don’t require a lot of space or equipment. This would provide veterans with additional income and diversification of their businesses.
So far, more than 75 veterans and community members have participated in the agricultural training, including Nicole Gerard, an Army veteran and a student in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
“I always had a desire to grow things, but I never did a great job,” she said. “After taking these classes, I now realize I was planting the wrong things at the wrong time and trying to harvest at the wrong time.”
Like many veterans, taking that first step to try something new left her feeling anxious and nervous. She signed up, but then she wouldn’t show up for the class. After meeting someone else who was attending the program, she finally got the courage to try a class.
“My first time here, I was sitting down on the ground helping sort out strawberry plants. And I was just smiling and having the best time ever. I’m like, ‘Why did it take me four months of signing up for these classes to finally get here?’” Gerard, a native of Chester, explained.
With four classes under her belt, Gerard has enjoyed the experience so much that she can sometimes be found sneaking into the high tunnel between workshops to check up on the plants and make sure things are progressing.
Tiffany Summerlin, executive director of Operation Welcome Home, isn’t surprised to learn of Gerard’s love of the program. In addition to building foundational skills to be successful in agriculture, the training also offers a therapeutic outlet through gardening and agriculture.
“Our partnership with WVU Extension allowed us to start with the very basics of agriculture to building the high tunnel and, finally, growing and distributing food,” Summerlin said. “We’re helping our veteran community gain valuable skills that will drive economic self-sufficiency, while helping them learn about career opportunities in agriculture. We’re also seeing them make important personal and professional connections that we hope will encourage them to start a business or contribute to the agricultural economy in West Virginia. It’s truly a win-win for our veterans and our state.”
For Gerard, the opportunity helped her connect a passion to her larger community. She now serves on the board of directors for Operation Welcome Home and is encouraging other veterans to get involved.
“The first workshop that I attended here, I saw people’s eyes light up. I saw different veterans talking to people out in the community. We were all coming together and bonding over just talking about growing stuff. It made me want to be a part of it,” she said.