Boots on the Ground: New Farm Apprenticeship Program for Veterans

Boots on the Ground: New Farm Apprenticeship Program for Veterans

Seeking Host Farms, Veteran Mentors, and Apprentices

Take the state’s top two industries – agriculture and defense/armed forces – along with continued demand for locally raised foods, the need for skilled labor, an aging farmer population, and the need for younger farmers coming up in the ranks, and what do you have? Opportunity!

There is also great need and a new apprenticeship program that is launching this spring is designed to address that need. Coordinated by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a partnership of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University, and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, “Boots on the Ground” is a registered apprenticeship program that allows veterans to use their GI bill education benefits to supplement the cost of housing and supplies. It is modeled off a program of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture Association.

“This program is unique because a registered apprenticeship program can help veterans bridge the gap between education and hands-on learning,” says Dr. Angel Cruz, academic and extension manager at CEFS. “There are a number of online and classroom-based training programs out there and other short-term hands-on training, but nothing combines the two and allows veterans to spend a whole year working in depth on a farm before jumping into farming on their own.”

Providing Training and Purpose

“Boots on the Ground” is supported through a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant. Dr. Cruz says she expects it to work closely with other training programs, such as Soldier to Ag, to be the next step for veterans who are serious about farming.

Sara Kidd, the project coordinator, recognizes the program’s importance from a personal level. She and her husband, Joseph Kidd, who is a Marine Corps veteran, are beginning farmers.

“I have seen how much he has grown and the new purpose he has found in farming and I want to share that with other veterans who may be looking for a new purpose,” explains Sara. “Providing this long-term training and hands-on experience along with a living wage and educational components should prepare veterans for successful careers in farming and agriculture, farm management, and entrepreneurship.”

How It Works and How to Apply

Each apprentice farmer will receive 1,600 to 2,000 hours of on-the-job training with a host farm and 144 hours of related instruction. That can include workshops, farm tours, webinars, community college classes, and extension activities. Apprentices will get a close look at the sustainable agriculture research under way at CEFS in Goldsboro.

If you are a military veteran who has at least three to six months of farming experience or has completed a basic farmer training course, you are eligible and encouraged to apply. Review the criteria used to select apprentices and complete the interest form. For interested apprentices, an informational Zoom call is scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 16. Register at this link.

Host Farms Needed

Eight host farms will be part of the program in the first year and 10 in the second. “The role of the host farmer is critical as they will be the primary mentor and employer of the apprentice,” explains Sara. The program is currently in the process of recruiting and approving host farms. If you have a keen interest in overseeing a veteran apprentice on a daily basis and ensuring quality on-the-job training, while employing someone who is eager to learn, visit the Boots on the Ground website and review requirements for host farmers and complete an interest form. An advisory team evaluates and selects the top candidates and then passes two to three applications to each host farm for the farmer to interview and select an apprentice with the project director.

“We are very excited to be developing the registered apprenticeship model for some of the first registered farming apprenticeships in North Carolina,” says Sara. “We hope to work with a broad variety of host farms and we value their input and feedback, especially in our pilot years. We are also grateful for all the community stakeholders like Carolina Farm Credit who have reached out to offer support.”

Farmer Veteran Mentors Needed

Another component of the program is to pair each apprentice with a farmer veteran mentor. “We decided it would be very helpful for veterans to have a secondary mentor who is also an experienced farmer and a military veteran,” explains Sara. “Building a strong network of peers who are veterans helps to support that camaraderie and community that is so tied to military culture. Plus, it’s an ‘off-farm’ person to talk to, someone who isn’t their employer or a program coordinator, someone who can provide social support and guidance without pressure.”

If you are a farmer and a military veteran who is interested in serving as a mentor, review the criteria for the selection process and complete an interest form.

Tapping Veterans’ Expertise and Providing Training to Help Agricultural Industry

“Agricultural jobs offer a viable path for returning veterans to transition into society and capitalize on skills that made them successful in the military,” says Dr. Cruz. She says that opportunities are often missed due to a lack of targeted training programs, guidance, and information for the veteran community. With North Carolina as one of the leading states in terms of a high military and veteran population, along with a growing demand for farmers and local foods, she points out this program has the potential to contribute to helping solve pressing needs in both industries. In addition to helping solve labor issues and training farmers to replace those aging out, farming is of tremendous benefit to veterans who are transitioning from a military career and looking to find livelihood and meaning as a contributing member of the farm community and its role in our society.

To Learn More

Visit Boots on the Ground: North Carolina’s Veteran Farmer Registered Apprenticeship website or contact Sara Kidd at skkidd@ncsu.edu.

By Leah Chester-Davis