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Farm Ops initiative opens new fields to veterans

New York agriculture faces a looming employment crisis, but not the kind that normally leaves job seekers skittish.

A rise in job capacity in the agriculture industry is not being met with enough skilled people ready to fill the expected surge in high-paying, productive careers. An innovative Cornell project is betting that military veterans are the answer.

Farm Ops, an initiative from the Cornell Small Farms Program, is the first of its kind in the country to give returning veterans the opportunity to learn agriculture via their G.I. Bill benefits. The program allows earned military benefits to be deployed in agriculture training, opening the way for young, hardworking men and women with the skills to be successful in a technologically advanced field to become the farmers of tomorrow.

Anu Rangarajan

“After leaving the military, our veterans enter the workforce with the dedication, grit and work ethic to succeed in whatever they wish to do,” said Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farm Program and senior extension associate in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences. “Until now, the job-training benefits they earned have not been applied to agriculture. Our program offers pathways, information and support to enter the agricultural workforce.

“It’s a win for our veterans and a win for the New York agricultural industry that desperately needs these talented people,” she said.

Funding for the program is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and a recent $115,000 appropriation from the New York State Enacted Budget as part of the Planting Seeds Initiative spearheaded by State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-48th District, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Through the program, veterans receive on-the-job training experience at pilot farm sites across the state. Once a farm is approved by the Division of Veterans’ Affairs, veterans can work at that farm for six to 24 months to learn all aspects of a particular farm enterprise, such as dairy or orchard management. For the first time, veterans can use their military housing allowances to support their on-the-job training in agriculture.

For those looking for short-term educational opportunities, the Small Farm Program and the National Center for Appropriate Technology offer “Armed to Farm,” a five-day intensive farm and business training program teaching the fundamentals of farming. Online courses from the Small Farm Program help veterans (and others) remotely learn the details of farm start-up.

Equipping young veterans to be successful is a natural fit for an aging workforce that has been growing grayer just as the job outlook has become a whole lot greener.

Since 2002, the number of farmers in New York over the age of 65 has grown while those under the age of 45 has declined by 30 percent. The past decade has seen a rise in beginning farmers joining the workforce, but a majority of those are over the age of 45.

That disconnect leaves farms vulnerable in the coming decades.

“We need more young farmers to keep land in farming long term,” said Rangarajan. “At stake is 1.7 million acres of New York farmland that has resources in abundance – the water and fertile soil to be the breadbasket of the Northeast and the country – but lacks the human capacity to optimize our advantages.”

The Cornell Small Farm Program is already working with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) on educational programming opportunities to make it easier for veterans to enter agribusiness. Partners in CCE facilitate networking among farmers and provide expertise and other in-field exposure to all forms of agricultural know-how. This new program takes it a step further by giving formal job training paid for by earned military benefits.

Rangarajan and others from the Farm Ops program will be at Fort Drum June 9 for Ag Career Day. The event gives military personnel the chance to learn more about the program and agricultural opportunities when they leave service.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Melissa Osgood