Soldiers of the Land: Veteran Farmer Training Program Plans for Growth
March 2, 2016 | Abbie Stutzer
Heroic Food is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing military veterans with the training they need to become sustainable farmers in New York’s Hudson River Valley
“I talk to veterans every day who dream of farming but lack the skills, experience, and resources to get started,” says Leora Barish, executive director of Heroic Food. “They want healthier lives for themselves and their families; they want to be stewards of the land they defended, and they want to continue serving their communities by providing food for hungry Americans.”
According to Barish, farming can help veterans transition to civilian life, heal from trauma, and forge viable careers. The veterans who work at Heroic Food receive comprehensive training in a residential, supportive setting designed to lead to farm employment and entrepreneurship.
The program’s beginning farmer training programs range from a rigorous, one to a two-year residential comprehensive program to shorter farm entry and workshops that allow veterans to explore their farm dreams, acquire new skills, network with fellow farmer-veterans, and learn about scaling-up small farm enterprises according to Barish. Heroic Food launched its pilot year in 2014.
“During our pilot year, we enrolled four veterans and their spouses in our residential comprehensive training program, and served 24 veterans and spouses through our farm entry programming,” she says. “The programs were successful beyond expectations. Participants, staff members, and mentor farmers reported that the participants acquired valuable knowledge, skills, and experience. They were well supported by the program and staff; enjoyed living in the community and gained confidence in the civilian world. As one farmer put it, ‘We watched this guy come out of his shell and just flower!’”
Heroic Food’s 20-acre farm serves as a training center, residential campus, and home. Currently, the organization is working on making the farm more productive.
“We continue to try to make it a model of safe, supportive, ecological living,” Barish says. “It must also become a vibrant, sustainable working farm. To do that will require improving our farm infrastructure. We need perimeter fencing, irrigation, farmer housing (for resident farmer or farm manager), and a new, functional livestock building to replace our scenic but dilapidated barn.”
Within three years Barish hopes to create a revenue stream to sustain the nonprofit and lessen its dependency on donations. Barish says the new barn, infrastructure and farmer housing will cost $300,000 in total.
Going forward, veterans who want to commit to longer, in-depth training can enter Heroic Food’s year-long immersion training program.
“Our First Year Immersion program offers residence on our farm and paid training positions on selective mentor farms,” Barish says. “Trainees also have access to a wide range of supplemental learning opportunities, including special skills workshops, online courses through Cornell Small Farms Program, and the basics of small farm business planning and management.”
Qualified graduates of the first year program can enter the Second Year Specialization Program, which includes advanced crew positions, learning opportunities, mentorship, and support.
Heroic Food also offers a Farmer-Veteran Clearinghouse, which collects, filters, updates and distributes information for veterans seeking training services, networking, coaching, and employment. The service also provides access to financial assistance, land referrals and veterans’ services information in New York State and beyond.
To serve more veterans in 2016 and beyond, Heroic Food will need to grow its program and add additional space.
“Our architect has created a beautiful passive solar housing site plan for Heroic Food consisting of housing for a total of 8 more veterans and their spouses, as well as a Common House for instruction, meetings, and social events,” Barish says.
The total cost for the expansion is $1.9 million. Heroic Food is launching a capital campaign to fund the project.
“Over the next three years, we expect to help more than 150 veterans to pursue careers in sustainable farming,” Barish says. “For every veteran who becomes a sustainable farmer, the benefits are deep and long-lasting to the veteran, his/her family, community, and the sustainable future of the nation.”