U.S. veterans who want to go into farming face many of the same barriers as civilians, like a lack of capital and land access.
But another obstacle is not having knowledge of farming practices.
This is according to Marisa Alcorta, who runs the California Farm Academy Apprenticeship Program at the Center For Land-Based Learning in Winters, 40 minutes west of Sacramento. She says farming “is not something they typically get trained for in the military, so many of them need to come back and find a training program to build up skills and knowledge.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently approved the Winters-based apprenticeship program, a step that will allow vets to use GI Bill benefits to cover their costs while they learn the ropes of farming. The VA allowance is $1,600 a month, according to the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a Davis-based nonprofit that mentors vets.
But the VA benefit will decrease 20 percent every six months over the two-year span of the CLBL apprenticeship, according to Alcorta. She still sees it as a significant boost for would-be farmers, since many California farmers do not provide apprentices with housing, and veterans have to contend with the lack of affordable living in California.
Matthew McCue is an Army veteran who’s traveled the path from the military to farming, although at that time, the CLBL program was not yet up and running. He says he didn’t know much about farming before he served in northern Iraq. “Sometimes we'd kick down doors and run through people’s gardens and fields to get to their houses,” he recalled. “And one thing I realized [was], man, these people really know how to farm.”
He also noticed local Iraqi farmers were still making money in war time, when nobody else could. So, after he returned to the United States, McCue completed college, earned a master’s degree in International Agriculture at UC Davis and completed an apprenticeship at the UC Santa Cruz Center For Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems.
He grew organic vegetables for a CSA box from a farm in Fairfield before taking a job at the Farmer Veteran Coalition as director of employment and training,. “Farming gave me the stability to go to school,” McCue said. “I [have] a lot of net gains from agriculture in terms of where I am in society.”
Agriculture is “not just bending over a hoe and weeding or working on an old tractor,” McCue added. “The level of business skills from learning how to run your own operation puts you head and shoulders above almost anyone you work with, regardless of what industry you go into."
He says becoming part of the farming community has given him a chance to create deep connections with non-military personnel. He calls that part of this life transition “priceless.”
The California Farm Academy Apprenticeship at the Center for Land-Based Learning is accepting applications for its 2019 cohort thru November 11.
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