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Helping Veterans Find Wellbeing Through Farming

Nina Saeli, Veterans Project Associate for the Cornell Small Farms Program and a veteran herself, shares her journey to Cornell and finding wellbeing through farming.

Nina Saeli and her siblings grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, with the outdoors as their playground. When she turned nineteen, Saeli enlisted in the Army with her younger brother and began a life of military service. She spent most of her adult life on active duty and she retired in 2009 but continued to work in military settings. “At that time, we were living in a city in the southern portion of the U.S. but knew we wanted to move to a more rural setting, where we could grow our own food and be more self-sufficient. Our search for a new home led us to the Finger Lakes,” explains Saeli. After moving to New York in 2013, she transitioned into various local government civil service positions, but the change was not always smooth. She adds, “each of these jobs took a toll on my wellbeing, as I was still dealing with the physical and emotional aspects of transitioning from the military back into civilian life. Socialization and connectedness can be a struggle for a veteran and affect their wellbeing. Trying to fit into a community after spending the majority of my adult on the move and never remaining in one location for more than a few years made it difficult for me to feel like I fit within the local community.”

Nina Saeli in Bosnia.

In 2015, Saeli and her husband attended a veteran-only event sponsored by the Cornell Small Farms Program (CSFP). Thirty veterans participated in a week of ‘basic’ training regarding the various types of NYS farm enterprises, learned about farm business financials, and engaged in some very inspiring farm tours. “This led my husband and I to literally begin moving dirt to start a farm the next month,” she laughs. As their farm grew, so did their relationship with CSFP. “We took CSFP online courses, the staff visited our farm and provided consultation, and we used the cornucopia of CSFP and extension resources to learn our new craft—farming.” In 2020, the program asked her to join them as a Veteran Associate so she could share all that she had learned as a beginning farmer with veterans across the state.

The CSFP veterans project, also known as “Farm Ops,supports military service members and veterans by providing the means for them to explore and/or pursue agricultural and horticultural vocations in NYS. Participants may be seeking opportunities for self-employment or avenues to continue to serve their community or looking for ways to connect with nature or fellow veterans. Since embarking into farming can be daunting, Farm Ops collaborates with state and federal agencies to provide resources to help the veterans establish a clearer path into agriculture. “No matter the level of a veteran’s horticultural or agricultural knowledge and experience when leaving service, many of the skills and much of the knowledge gained during their military service can easily transfer into various agricultural vocations. Whatever their interests, Farm Ops aims to serve and support the men and women of NYS who dedicated their lives in service and support of our nation,” Saeli remarks.

Although the military offers excellent programs that promote healthy lifestyles, good sleep habits, chronic disease prevention through healthy living habits, and self-care, Saeli admits, that like many veterans, she grapples with the concepts of wellbeing. “The struggle in part is due to the experiences of veterans, who even in peacetime are pushed beyond normal physical, mental, and emotional limits in order to ensure they are prepared to perform and execute required tasks amidst the chaos and uncertainty of war,” she notes. “Farming has in many ways been part of how I nurture my own wellbeing.  As much as I find farming relaxing, it is also rigorous, and I can say that a day of farm work can equate to an 8-hour cross fit session. Also, since learning to grow food, I eat healthier now than at any other time in my life.”

Working with CSFP has helped Saeli cultivate a sense of community and purpose. “My work with the CSFP through Farm Ops has provided me a way to connect with veterans across NYS, where I feel like I can be more myself because I am with people who have similar life experiences,” she explains. Like military units that adopt a motto that may represent history or a legacy, Saeli has adopted her own motto, “Farm On!”, that serves as a simple reminder of the tenacity and resilience of farmer veterans. It is not unusual for her out-of-office email message to alert folks that her hours may vary due to harvesting demands as she cultivates her growing farm – and her wellbeing.


Amy Layton is the Work/Life Program Coordinator in the Division of Human Resources.

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