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Environment & Science

‘A whole farmer, a whole business’: How Rodale Institute teaches veterans to become organic farmers

Rodale Institute Veteran Farmer Training
Rodale Institute
In eight growing seasons, 67 veterans have successfully completed Rodale Institute Veteran Farmer Training. This year's graduates included: Back row, from left: Luz Bautista, Justin Barclay, Julie Boughton, Alex Hurla, Gigi Copeland, Mika Ulmet, Will Christie; Brittany Galka and Sam Geesaman. Front row, from left: Mike Peterman, Rodrigo Menocal, Andrew O’Connor, Andrew Hall, Ramon Madrid, Dan Kemper and Brian Coffey.

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — After more than two decades serving in the U.S. Air Force, Julia Boughton said she’s excited for a future in farming.

“I've always had a love of gardening, but it's only been in the backyard garden setting,” said Boughton, 45, of Manitou Springs, Colorado. “I really wanted to learn how to produce more food and be able to feed more people in my community because agriculture is kind of lacking in this area of Colorado.

“And I really wanted to be able to start growing food for people in the community so that we can have more access to local food around here.”

Boughton is one of several dozen veterans who have successfully completed Rodale Institute’s Veteran Farmer Training program. Less than a decade old and with trainees coming from all over the country, the program aims to give veterans the tools they need to pivot into successful farming careers, as well as spread knowledge about sustainable farming practices and regenerative organic agriculture.

“I think that's the bottom line, is that I love food and I love good food – and I love knowing that my food is safe and healthy and where it came from,” said Boughton. “And I started paying more attention to where food was coming from and I thought ‘OK, I can at least grow enough food for my husband and myself in a garden, but why not take us a bit further?’"

“I think that's where my love of farming came from. At the time, I really didn't have a path, but the Rodale Institute's Veteran Farmer training program really offered a way forward.”

‘A very healthy balance’

Each year, between seven and 10 veterans are accepted into the program, said Justin Barclay, Rodale’s global education operations manager. The program is totally free for veterans, and they receive a weekly stipend independent of any benefits they receive for their service.

“And for those veterans who are not local, housing is provided for free,” said Barclay, a combat-experienced Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.

In eight growing seasons, 67 veterans have successfully completed the program from 25 states, he said.

There are two tracts, including a full season, or 35 weeks from March through October; or a short season, from May through August, for those who need a more flexible schedule.

“There's a very healthy balance between hands-on training and education,” he said. “There's about a 60-40 split with 60% of the time spent out there in the fields or in the processing station, and then the other 40% of the week is dedicated to education.”

There are presentations and lectures, including classes with Rodale staff and research scientists, as well as financial training.

“We do a lot of field trips to farms within the local area, and we try to really focus on beginning farmers so that they can share their lessons,” he said.

The U.S. needs farmers, especially younger farmers.

The average age of farm producers increased from 56.3 to 57.5 years from 2012 to 2017, according to the Department of Agriculture’s most recent census.

“As legacy producers retire, our nation needs the next generation of producers to take on the important business of providing food, feed, fuel and fiber for a growing population,” federal officials said.

Earlier this month, state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding toured a veteran-owned Berks County farm and announced a new round of Veterans In Agriculture Grants.

Veterans' services organizations can apply for up to $200,000 to deliver sub-grants to military veterans for farm and related business start-ups and expansion, according to a Nov. 8 news release. Each successful organization can then offer grants of up to $10,000 to veterans entering farming or expanding farms or related businesses.

"Veterans return from serving our country with valuable, hard-won skills they can put to work on the farm," Redding said. "Like any other business, they need to finance planning, safety, permits, equipment and other critical needs.

“These grants are a tangible way the Shapiro Administration is thanking our veterans for their service and supporting their future success in agriculture."

The average age of a farmer is “steadily creeping up” each year, Barclay said.

“There's definitely the opportunity that we need a newer or, at least, a younger generation of farmers,” he said. “And I think on the organic side of things, people are realizing the importance of organic agriculture and the need to do things a little bit differently that's more helpful and beneficial to the soil.

“Instead of just totally trying to squeeze every ounce of produce out that you can out of a given area that you're focusing on more the long term health of the soil net long term sustainability. I think that's where the organic piece comes into play.”

‘That is my dream’

Boughton, who grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Souderton High School, was accepted for the full season, working and learning at Rodale from March 6 through Nov. 3, she said.

“They really want to get a whole farmer, a whole business, not just good labor,”

“I opted for the long program so that I can see the entire growing season start to finish,” she said. “I really felt that was important for me to get a baseline knowledge of what an entire season looks like.”

Her goal is to start her own farm in Colorado, and thanks to her training at Rodale, she already has a business plan ready to go.

“We don't need anything huge, something small, and also I've made some local connections already with vendors who bring in as much local produce as they can,” she said. “They really have a need for more close to home. They bring in produce from hundreds of miles away from where we are, so there's really a deficit in agriculture in this particular region.

“That is my dream – to start a small farm and be as regenerative as I can to build up the soil here, because Colorado soil is not all that great in this area.”

Describing it as “incredible” and “the most hands-on training I've ever had,” Boughton said she’s never had her own business.

“They take people like me, who have absolutely no experience in having their own business, and they really give you the tools to lay the groundwork for setting up your own business and in particular, managing your finances because we all know that's a crucial part of it,” she said. “The fact that Rodale Institute even put forth the effort to make sure that we're a well-rounded student as opposed to just good workers, good laborers in the field, is really a testament to their belief in farmer education.

“They really want to get a whole farmer, a whole business, not just good labor,” she continued. “I've really valued all these things, the ancillary training in addition to the actual fieldwork, getting your hands dirty. Every day was really a gift. Honestly, it was so valuable to me.”