The tattoos give them away … what division they were in, dates of service, unit patches or awards, a particular military operation, the passing of a comrade in arms. You see their tattooed arms at Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, turning compost with a pitchfork, operating a lever on a tractor, or throwing a bucket of grain to the hogs. These U.S. veterans are enrolled in a relatively new program in Pennsylvania designed just for them.
American farmers are at a crossroads. More than 100,000 midsize farms have shut down over the past decade, often squeezed out by larger farms. Small-scale farmers are part of a dying breed, but the reality is that we need food and we need farms. And for a multitude of reasons, we need to truck our food fewer miles.
The numbers of service women and men coming home from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone those from the Vietnam era still searching for a vocation, could help fill this need. At least that’s what officials with Rodale Institute and Delaware Valley College, in Doylestown, believe. In 2013, Rodale and DelVal partnered to offer a 36-credit, one-year organic farming certification program targeting veterans.
Mike Walker, a Vietnam veteran enrolled in the 2013 program, says, “I was in school, working for the government, was on the street. But I am in this program because I love growing food. One of my fondest memories from my youth is growing tomatoes with my mother.”
Walker suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and because of it, reading and writing come slowly. “The information is in my head, but it can’t come out.”
Much of the veterans’ “class” time is spent outdoors. Three days a week, they are in the field, doing hands-on work. During the last five weeks of the program, they focus their efforts to specialize in a particular field of study.
Six veterans are enrolled in the 2014-2015 program, and everyone agrees with Walker. “Our relationship with one another is strong. We are known on campus as ‘the vets.’ We bonded quickly and have a mental link that we all felt from the very beginning. It is a very positive thing,” they say.
These are not traditional students; they have their own issues, and it can be a rocky transition from the military to a farm. Tom Kennedy runs DelVal’s Veterans’ Center, which helps veterans fill out forms and choose classes, and basically serves as a sort of home-away-from-home.
“Farming can be unpredictable,” Kennedy says. “When dealing with nature, you’re dealing with a lot of things that are out of your control. In the military, these veterans were used to following orders, not being in charge, but they are resilient, flexible, and know how to take the initiative to adapt. These traits go hand-in-hand in agriculture, and so they do very well in the program.”
DelVal is a “Yellow Ribbon” school, which means that veterans who are eligible have 100 percent of their tuition paid, in addition to a stipend for living expenses. A one-year program is doable, and the veterans know they can succeed. The credits can be transferred toward a bachelor’s degree if they so choose.
Fewer than half a dozen veteran farming programs exist around the country, and the partnership created by Rodale Institute and DelVal is among the best.
Rodale Institute’s organic philosophy seems to resonate with veterans. “There was so much destruction in the war,” Walker says. “Besides the killing, there was the poisoning from Agent Orange and all its detrimental side effects on our bodies over the years.”
Mark Smallwood, executive director of Rodale Institute, says, “As organic farmers, our goal is to work with nature, not against it. We teach the vets to grow with biology — not chemistry, which is the norm in conventional agriculture.”
Throughout the course of the year, the veteran farmers try their hand at vegetable growing, composting, animal husbandry, integrated pest management, and more. Jackie Ricotta, associate professor of horticulture and the program’s primary instructor, says, “Veterans have a certain maturity, a calm. They’re able to listen and absorb what they are being taught.”
Veteran farmers can opt to take the course “Pass/Fail” so there is no pressure, though they will need to convert the passing grades to letter grades if they want to continue in a degree program, which quite a few do. One of the challenges the veteran farmers have is learning to write and develop their communication skills. The military is famous for using acronyms, so a mentor program is offered in science, math and writing.
Their greatest mentor is a graduate from the DelVal horticulture program, Dennis Riling, who went from veteran student to program coordinator and adjunct professor.
The veteran farmers leave the program with the knowledge and experience needed to start a small-scale organic farm or to work for an organic operation. Marine veteran Adam Sharp, a current student, has a dream of running an organic farm using horsepower and operating an organic restaurant on-site. The veterans receive assistance with job placement, as well as in developing business plans so graduates can move directly into rewarding careers in organic agriculture.
Dave Reynolds, who spent six years in the Navy, is enrolled in the current program. Reynolds spent most of his time in the military on an aircraft carrier overseas. “The military wants you to have a goal when you disconnect, but I was unsure and unaware of the state of agriculture in the U.S. at the time,” he says. “My life was so far away from soil. But the guys and I talked about a fantasy we had, ‘Let’s go be bean farmers, but we know nothing.’ When I looked into the program and heard such good things about Riling, I found it fit right in with my personality and goals.”
Many veterans are coming home and looking not only for work but also for a sense of purpose.
“I’m in this program because I’m into feeding people,” Walker says. “I love this country, and what makes this country great is agriculture. Let’s not lose it.”
Looking for more articles about veterans? Read Military Veterans Learn to Farm with Farmer-Veteran Coalition.