|WVU Extension helping veterans learn about agriculture through a partnership with Operation Welcome Home
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Many veterans who return from active-duty face challenges acclimating to civilian life. Determining future career paths and opportunities is one of those challenges. Through a unique partnership with West Virginia University Extension and Operation Welcome Home, veterans and their families are gaining career knowledge and tools through agriculture.
The Veterans in Agriculture Training program, which was made possible through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, provides veterans who are interested in careers in agriculture with hands-on experiences and classroom learning opportunities. The training also helps make connections between veterans and the local community.
“This cooperative 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 per quarter at the high tunnel, which is located on an old strip mine in 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 hopes that 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 being profitable.”
The WVU Extension team also is exploring adding a course in raising chickens – an animal that doesn’t require a lot of space or equipment. This would provide veterans with additional income and diversification of their business.
More than 75 veterans and community members have participated in the agricultural training, including Nicole Gerard, an Army veteran and WVU 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. I would always do it all my own,” she said. “After taking these classes, I now realize I was planting the wrong things at the wrong time and trying to harvest it at the wrong time.”
But, 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, West Virginia, explained.
With four classes under her belt, Gerard has enjoyed the experience so much that you may even find her sneaking into the high tunnel between workshops to check up on the plants and make sure things are moving along.
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 101 to building the high tunnel and finally growing and distributing food. We appreciate the knowledge and expertise that Dr. Lewis Jett has given to our participants. We’re helping our veteran community gain valuable skills that will drive economic self-sufficiency, while also helping them learn about career opportunities in agriculture,” Summerlin said. “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.
Seeing veterans coming together with others to learn about agriculture made her want to be a part of this program even more. 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.”