Life After the Military
For some veterans and active-duty members, agriculture offers an opportunity to gain back the camaraderie that many feel they lose in their life after military duty. For others, it offers a chance to be their own boss while gifting them confidence, purpose, and immeasurable physical and psychological benefits. The skills and character traits it takes to succeed in both the military and agriculture are very similar. In fact, it’s a common reason as to why so many veterans seek out agriculture in life after the military.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 11% of the 3.4 million agriculture producers in the U.S. are veterans or active-duty military. They account for $41 billion in agriculture sales and collectively farm over 129 million acres of land. In West Virginia, producers with military service account for 14% of the state’s producer population. In a state with such a storied agricultural and military history, it comes as no surprise that so many choose to serve twice – once by defending it and a second by feeding it.
Growth Through Purpose and Understanding
Since its inception in 2014, the Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program has seen much success in the introduction and assistance of military veterans into the world of agriculture. By 2020, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture expanded the program with House Bill 4693 to include emergency response and first responders,
in addition to veterans. In its infancy, the program, formerly known as Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture, was driven by volunteer service. However, by 2018, WVDA Commissioner Kent Leonhardt advocated for and received an appropriation that gained the program funding through the Legislature.
Leonhardt, a veteran and farmer himself, knows first-hand how important agriculture can be to one’s mental wellness:
“We know from experience that agriculture can heal the unseen wounds of war. I know as a young marine when I had a stressful day and I had bees in my backyard, I could go out and watch those bees come and go. The hum of their comings and goings would sooth and calm my nerves,” Leonhardt says.
Commitment to the Mission
The Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program is dedicated to the integration and support of veterans, firefighters, law enforcement, emergency services personnel and first responders entering or currently working in agriculture to benefit their health and welfare, as well as the states’ agricultural economy. More than 370 members have received opportunities for education, training, scholarships and mentorships spanning various topics and skill levels.
Perhaps one of West Virginia’s greatest agricultural strengths is its diversity. Members of the Veterans and Heroes program can use this to their advantage by gaining reimbursements for any pre-approved agricultural-related classes, workshops, conferences and certifications. Approved courses include:
- Retail Farm Market School
- Woodland Mushroom Cultivation
- Future Generations University: Maple Certification
Not only do members receive several benefits but organizations around the state who work directly with or provide support to first responders, active-duty military and/or veterans are eligible for grant funding up to $24,000 through an application process.
At its core, the program is designed to help those who have helped us. One way of doing that is by connecting veterans to one another across the state. Members like Kevin Burkeman, a renowned blacksmith and farmer from Belleview, WV, has found that agriculture helped him regain a sense of purpose. He has since used that hopeful energy to help other veterans find their identity again via blacksmithing classes.
“There are some people who lose their identity and their purpose once they take that uniform off. How do they re-identify themselves? How do they rebrand themselves?” Burkeman asked. “If you can make those little connections with a vet, somebody that’s struggling, that’s worth it.”
Are you a veteran, active-duty military or first responder who would like to learn more? Looking to pass the info along to someone you know who may be interested? Check out the Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program on our website today to learn how we can help you tomorrow!
About the Author
A Parkersburg, West Virginia native, Sierra Cox graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2010 and commissioned as a Surface Warfare Officer. She served at Naval Station San Diego aboard USS BOXER (LHD-4) and USS McCLUSKY (FFG-41) completing a 2011 Western Pacific deployment and a 2014 Counter-Illicit Trafficking deployment.
Sierra moved back to her home state of West Virginia after leaving the Navy, and purchased Wonder Valley Farm in 2017 where she, her husband John, and their daughter Izabella grow veggies and herbs, keep bees, cultivate non-timber forest products, and care for a menagerie of animals. She worked with the WV Food and Farm Coalition from 2019-2021 and is now excited to serve Veterans and Heroes and support the agricultural industry in West Virginia.
You can reach Sierra at [email protected] or 304-558-2210.